Barcelona – things to look out for.
By Tim Charlesworth
We’re all rather wracked with anxiety about tonight’s game. I find a nice way to deal with football tension is to think about some aspects of the game to look out for (other than the ‘who scores the most goals’ question). Matches like this define teams, and the consequences may be far reaching, so lets focus on a few of the sub-plots:
Mertesacker and Koscielny – This has been a great partnership, without ever quite being world class. There are question marks about them as they age, particularly Mertesacker (and his leg speed). If they can handle the ‘Barca three’, it would suggest that there is life in the old dogs yet. If they are overrun, Wenger may consider his options.
The defensive shield – Defending is about more than the two centre backs. Barca have (to put it mildly) a wealth of attacking options. Monreal, Bellerin, Coquelin and others have roles to play in resisting them. Of course, Cech has put in more than one excellent display against Barcelona whilst at Chelsea. This is particularly a test for Coquelin. He will be under great pressure and hasn’t yet convinced us that he is fully back up to speed following his knee injury. He has proved his worth in the Premiership, but is yet to do so in the CL. A good performance may put him in the frame to play for France in Euro ’16. Ramsey will also have to show defensive skill. Against Bayern at home, Ozil got pulled deep, and we may see this again.
Ozil – If he wants to be recognised as the best in the world (and I think that is well within his grasp), he needs to start performing in this kind of match. This season, we are starting to see the kind of ‘big match’ performances which he is capable of (Bayern, Man U). This is his biggest test. He played in matches like this for Madrid, but always as Ronaldo’s wing man. Now the expectations are on him.
Giroud – Presuming that he, and not Walcott, starts, this will be an interesting game for him. Barca are vulnerable in the air, but can he see enough of the ball to do any damage? His goalscoring form is a ‘little short’ as Arsene might say. He doesn’t have the pace to expose Barca’s vulnerability to counter attack. Opportunities for ‘hold up play’ are limited against a team that presses as well as Barca do. He will be 30 in September and is towards the back end of a striker’s peak years. He won’t get many more chances to impress on the biggest stage.
The Barca boys – Bellerin and Sanchez will both be desperate to impress. It was the experience of playing against Barca that seemed to finally turn Fabregas’ head. Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen to Bellerin. Sanchez was basically dumped to accommodate Jaws at Barca. He will be even more desperate to impress than normal (if such a thing is possible). We badly need him to return to form, and this would be a great game for it.
The referee – It is not only Arsenal who have been the victims of sendings off against Barca. The dismissal of RVP in 2011, remains the most perplexingly stupid refereeing decision I have seen. The decision gifted the tie to Barca, and whenever I see Barca’s European triumphs listed, I mentally chalk 2011 off, as it was not a trophy honestly won. If a refereeing bribery scandal is ever uncovered, I expect that game to feature. Man City have had three players dismissed in their last four games with Barca, and even Real Madrid have been the victims on a surprising number of occasions. Barca have had nearly twice as many red cards in their favour as the second highest team in champions league history. This is suspicious. Bribery is the obvious explanation for this phenomenon, but there are others:
- Barca are almost universally admired. They are seen as not only winners, but beautiful in their style. Even referees may not be immune from this, and have a tendency to see ‘roughing’ of Barca players as morally outrageous. Barca seem to get exactly the same protection that Arsenal have needed, but not got, in recent years.
- Barca’s stadium and their crowd are the most intimidating in the world. Players are reasonably immune to this. They have each other. The referee is on his own, literally in the middle of it all. Can any human being be reasonably expected to defy 100,000 baying Barca fans? Can there be a more lonely place to be in the entire world?
- Barca’s playing style naturally draws fouls. They play the ball late, inviting men to commit themselves. The players are small and quick, and they are in possession of the ball for most of the game. Because they are small and light on their feet, they are easily knocked over. This is a perfect recipe for red and yellow cards.
The crowd – I touched on this above, but a home crowd can make a big difference in a big match. We have seen this twice this season. In the Chelsea away match (PL4), the crowd intimidated Mike Dean into mistakes which handed the match to Chelsea. At the Ems against Leicester, our crowd intimidated the referee into ‘righting the wrong’ of the Leicester goal, by sending a Leicester player off. The crowd reaction also possibly forced him into awarding the last minute free kick, and then allowing the time for it to be played out. We can be a bit ‘Anglo-Saxon’ about this, but it is part of the game. The ‘Latin’ view of the world sees football as a kind of audience participation theatre. No-one embodies this more than Portuguese Mourinho, who seems to see it as a major part of his job to ‘play’ the referee. If you are there tonight, remember that the Barca crowd will not hold back, so neither should you!
Flat track bullies? – Any statistical analysis suggests that Barcelona are a phenomenally successful team. But are they only beating weak La Liga opposition? There may be a little truth to this, but not really. Remember they are European Champions, after all. However, the kind of dominance that Barca have shown is difficult to sustain. It will probably come to an end soon (remember how the invincibles ground to a halt). Will Arsenal be the turning point?
Weak Defence? – Barca are certainly stronger in attack than defence. However, centre backs Mascherano and Pique are fine players by any standards. They keep Vermaalen out of the side (although to be fair, that is no more than Kos and BFG did). Busquets is also a world class DM and the full backs are very good – albeit more attacking than defensive. They are a bit weak in the air, and probably vulnerable to Giroud. They also press high, and this makes them vulnerable to counter attacks at pace. Of course, if they do have a defensive weakness, you need the ball to expose it!
Just enjoy it – this is one of the highest quality games that will be played in world football this year. Players come to Arsenal because they want to play in games like this. I realise that in picking out the crucial issues, I have picked out almost everything. This reflects the intensity that we can expect to see, all over the pitch. For one evening, the title race will be forgotten and everyone will be 100% motivated. Remember that you love football, as well as loving Arsenal. You will see some very good football. This is a genuine test for a Barcelona team that knows that no club has ever successfully defended a Champions League title. The odds may be against us over two legs, but we have a good chance of victory at home.
- The tactics we can use against Barcelona, and what to wish for if it don’t work.
- Do you have faith in Fifa? And Arsenal v Barcelona, player by player.
- 23 February 1895: Arsenal played Burton at New Brompton’s ground following forced closure of Manor Ground because of crowd trouble. Arsenal won 3-0 in front of 5000 fans and it has been noted that no other club was ever treated so harshly for similar offences.
- 23 February 1901: Arsenal’s first ever match in the 2nd round of the FA Cup, and only their second appearance in front of 20,000 spectators. It ended Woolwich Arsenal 0 WBA 1.
And outside football…
23 Feb 1820: Estate Agent Arthur Thistlewood’s plan to blow up a house where senior members of the government were having dinner, to release all prisoners and set London on fire was thwarted by the police. Bloody estate agents!