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Yesterday, as part of the build up to the Barca game I did an interview on Catalunya Ràdio about Arsenal and Herbert Chapman, which I have to admit was rather fun (a bit like Basil Fawlty having a hotel full of German guests and not mentioning certain historic incidents). As as a prelude to Phil Gregory’s preview of the game below I would like to reiterate my thanks to Pat McLachlan of Just Arsenal for his help over this matter, and give a particular plug to Just Football Highlights. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
Arsenal v Barca – By Phil Gregory
With all the endless chat in the media around Cesc and the seemingly regular nature of these games it almost feels like a derby to me, not that the stakes need to go any higher. A 2-2 draw was what we got from our last home game versus Barcelona in a cracking match between two great sides. The opening half saw us looking punch drunk with Barcelona’s passing leaving us chasing shadows but somehow keeping the scoreline 0-0 thanks to stellar shot-stopping display from Manuel Almunia.
Things went from bad to worse after the break, but we fought back to 2-2 with Theo Walcott terrifying the Barcelona back line with his pace and clinical finishing. Can Arsenal go one better this season, and take a lead to Camp Nou? Too bloody right we can, so what’s changed since?
The team that day was Almunia, Sagna Gallas Vermaelen Clichy, Song Fabregas Diaby, Nasri Arshavin Bendtner. The back five that day barely resembles our current defence, largely due to the changes at centre back and goalkeeper respectively. Szcznesy’s strengths are in my view his shop stopping and commanding presence in goal, organising his back four.
Despite the performance of Almunia (arguably one of the best of his Arsenal career) I feel confident with the young Pole between the sticks going into this one.
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Clichy is the only constant in the defensive unit, given the suspension of Sagna. Eboue will step in, a more than able deputy according to Bacary himself. The defensive pairing of Djourou and Koscielny is certainly blossoming, and although the Vermaelen’s injury is a shame the performances of our current central defenders have done much to mitigate his absence.
This familiarity between our central defenders will be key, with both the goals conceded in last years’ Emirates tie largely a result of confusion between the central defenders. Gallas’ injury was a blow in that regard, with Song playing in a brand new partnership, and out of position too.
Song didn’t have the best of games in this tie last season, with the whole team struggling in midfield before he switched to an unfamiliar central defensive role. The Cameroonian has come on leaps and bounds this season, and our midfield is much more solid thanks to his partnership with Wilshere. Cesc is Cesc, and while he hasn’t quite replicated last season’s goalscoring heroics just yet, he is the heartbeat of this side. I certainly think we’re stronger in midfield this year, both individually and as a unit.
As for the front three, well. Bendtner’s aerial threat will be missed but some sublime performances from Robin Van Persie bode well for the Barcelona game. Nasri has improved immeasurably since last season (even given he was one of our best players in the Barca tie) and then of course, Theo Walcott. After changing the game from the bench, the Barca players were rightfully fearful of Walcott in the run up to the second leg, yet the England international has come on leaps and bounds since then.
He looks more robust for a World Cup free summer, shrugging off challenges that would have normally knocked him down, while the pace and clinical finishing are all there to see. Most importantly, a run of games has allowed the 21 year old to gain the confidence that game time brings. If Barcelona were scared last year, they certainly ought to be now.
My team therefore is:
Eboue Djourou Koscielny Clichy
Walcott Van Persie Nasri
There aren’t any surprises in the back five or midfield. The only real talking point is Arshavin making way for Nasri on the left though it is a real 50:50 as to whether Wenger will start him or keep him on the bench. Even medically fit, much will depend on whether Samir is simply sharp enough to start after a couple of weeks out. He’s been back training so I suspect he will be, but we will have to wait and see Wenger’s decision to know for sure.
Onto injuries. The big news is that Nasri is “medically fit” having recovered from his hamstring problem quicker than expected. That is absolutely huge, given the Frenchman has been, in my opinion, our player of the season so far. Medically fit suggests there is no risk of a recurrence, so could he start? Caution will always be a watchword given we’re in the home stretch of the Premier League and with a final coming up, but if he’s fit, why not?
Rosicky is another returnee, back as part of the squad after an injury on international duty with the Czech likely to take up a place on the bench. Diaby is out with a muscle injury and will play no part.
From re-watching the first leg, the main things which struck me was how poor our pressing game was. Naturally, Barcelona don’t ever make it easy to win the ball back but our defensive shape and positioning was much worse than what I have seen this season. Much of that would have been as a result of 433 still being reasonably new last year, but we’ve adapted the formation and approach over the summer and are much better as a team defensively. In this respect, I expect us to be able to give Barcelona a hell of a lot more trouble than we did last year at the Emirates and expect more parity in terms of possession.
Barcelona’s own pressing is exemplary, but they can afford to chase tirelessly as they rarely lose the ball, and on those rare occasions they aren’t chasing for long. Jose Mourinho always speaks of “resting with the ball” and it is much less tiring to have the ball. Linked in to the previous point about us having more of the ball, it will be interesting to see how Barcelona’s pressing lasts as the game goes on if we enjoy periods with the ball. Tired legs might just give us a bit more space than we might expect, and this advantage may not come as easily in the second leg, so it is vital we make it count.
For once, we’ve also got the advantage in the air. Pique is six foot odd, but with Barcelona proven to be the smallest side in Europe, players such as Song, Bendtner, Chamakh and Djourou could well have Barcelona worried at set pieces. If we can win a few free kicks around the box we need to be taking advantage of our superiority in this department. While Bendtner and Chamakh are unlikely starters, the pair of them off the bench for a plan B is a good card for Wenger to have. The Dane in particular should have scored from a great header in the second half of last year’s tie.
Theo Walcott’s appearance off the bench was the game changer last year, excellent balls inside of Maxwell at left back leading to chances and of course Arsenal’s first goal. Due to Barcelona’s injuries we may see Maxwell at left back again, and I certainly hope we do. His defensive play has always been a little suspect, but in a side as dominant as Barcelona he can get away with it. Arsenal however possess the players to counter attack rapidly, and the Brazilian is a player who we will look to target.
As for Barca’s line-up, we know they’ll be without first choice centre back Puyol, which leaves them a bit of a conundrum. In their last game, they used Milito as a centre back in place of Puyol and played Maxwell at left back That left the usual left back Abidal on the bench. Was he rested with this game in mind, or was Milito getting much needed game before starting at centre back? I suspect he was being protected, in case of injury, which means he’ll slot in at centre back in place of Milito, with Maxwell at left back Arsenal should look to take advantage of an unfamiliar centre back partnership, while Abidal has played the vast majority of his games at fullback so may slip up.
Barcelona also started Javier Mascherano in their last game, despite the Argentine appearing largely on the bench thanks to the performances of Busquets. Again, we can assume this is rotation with the game versus us in mind, to ensure Busquets is fresh and ready to perform his usual theatrics.
I expect we’ll see Barcelona with the following line-up:
Alves Pique Abidal Maxwell
Messi Villa Pedro
Barcelona are a great team, of that there is no doubt. As ever in life however, people focus on the obvious (“Barcelona just won sixteen games on the trot, so are the best side in the world”) as opposed to (“Barcelona are a great side, but the fact that they won 16 games on the trot has as much to do with their massive TV deal as anything else”).
While their performances in Europe have confirmed they are a quality side, there is a tendency to over-hype anything that is excellent into being out of this world (see Rooney’s winner for more of this).
Are Barcelona are better side than Arsenal? Probably, but not vastly so, their massacre of us at the Nou Camp had much to do with our own injury list as their ability. Remind anybody who slates Arsenal’s academy in relation to Barca’s that if the Catalans were situated in England, regulations would have prevented them from signing Iniesta for their academy aged 12 as he lived too far away (in England, you can’t sign for a club unless you live within 90 minutes of that club). Not that I’m in any way downplaying La Masia, but there is always more to these things than meets the eye, and it undoubtedly helps that Barcelona can hoover up the best young talent in a country that actually coaches their kids.
To wrap up, what is going to matter in this game is simply confidence. If we go into the game believing they are a side who spanked us 4-1 at the Nou Camp, and who possess clearly the best player in the world in their ranks then we’ve lost before the game even starts. Until the first goal went in last year, we barely had any of the ball and created next to nothing. Suddenly Walcott slots one in, our players’ spirits lift and we zipped the ball around, took men on and surged forward, making Barcelona look like any old opposition at the Emirates.
The players didn’t suddenly become better after the goal went in, they simply thought “we can get something from this” and played as well as we know they can. We can beat Barcelona if we perform to our level, that I am certain of. 2-1 to the Arsenal for me
Enjoy the game wherever you’re watching it, I’m off to Spain this morning of the game… anybody know if the Basques like Catalans? Regardless, the Arsenal shirt will be out, and Spanish beer will be liberally sampled once we get our result at full time.
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