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by Phil Gregory
Arsenal go into this game off the back of a disappointing 0-0 draw with Sunderland. Leading after the first leg, we know that a similar result against Barca would see us through to the quarter finals and the favourites knocked out, but I think few would put money on a 0-0 draw. Barcelona’s scoring record at the Nou Camp is a testament to both their attacking prowess and the lack of competition in the “sunny SPL” but most Arsenal fans expect to have to score at the Nou Camp if we are to progress.
A 2-1 win at home is a mixed result in the Champions League. Giving away an away goal is always a cause for concern, but we head into the second leg ahead on aggregate. The most improtant thing to remember is that we go into this game knowing that Barcelona only scored a single away goal: a goal from us at any point would cancel that out, and have Barcelona worried about us getting a second.
Even with a weakened attack given the injuries to Theo Walcott and Van Persie – though the Dutchman has travelled to Barcelona after training on Monday – I feel sure that we will score. Barcelona’s defensive injuries mean that their defence has weakened in line with our attacking absentees, and if they are forced to shuffle Busquets into the back four then they will lose a lot of ball retention in midfield too.
In my mind, there isn’t really a question about how we will approach this game. Much credit has been given by pundits to the deep defensive system Mourinho’s Inter set up on their way to the Champions League final last season. Yet what they fail to note is that Inter won the first leg after Barcelona had a lengthy coach journey and the Italians certainly got a bit of fortune from the referee. Indeed despite their defensive approach in the second leg, they actually lost over the 90 minutes. Had they not gone into the tie with the lead from the first leg – garnered thanks to a good dose of luck – they would not have reached the final.
Either way, Arsenal cannot play like that, and Wenger admitted as much on Monday. We will instead play to our strengths and defend via possession, and close Barcelona down when they have the ball. Barcelona’s goal in the first leg came about as a result of a dodgy offside trap (Clichy played them onside, but we shouldn’t have been playing offside with a man running at our back four anyway) and elementary errors such as that will have to be avoided in the second leg. Our players won what was probably the hardest game of their lives and now they have to do it again, with the level likely raised once again at the Nou Camp.
Theo Walcott is a big miss, we all know that. More than just his pace however, the Barcelona tie was the game where I really stood up and realised: “Theo Walcott is playing like an Arsenal forward now”. Zonal Marking had some great chalkboards illustrating this a few weeks ago, showing Theo and Nasri’s touches in a game. Unlike what you’d expect, Theo doesn’t hug the touchline so much any more and comes inside well. He also showed some great feet against Barcelona, and played some beautifully weighted forward passes. These newly emerging aspects of his game allied to his pace will make him a potent inside forward , and he’s a huge miss in the second leg.
Theo’s the big absence, but Song is out too along with the usual long-termers. I’m going for the following line-up:
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Sagna Djourou Koscielny Clichy
Arshavin Bendtner Nasri
Szcznesy continues in goal, and will draw confidence from his last performance against Barcelona, where he made a few excellent saves, including a key stop deep into injury time. Sagna replaces Eboue from the first leg, with the rest of the back four unchanged. That defensive unit inspires confidence for me, having performed so admirably against the best Barcelona could throw at us in London.
In midfield, the absence of Song is a blow and no doubt controversially I’m hoping Denilson fills in. Diaby performed well against Sunderland and is arguably above the Brazilian in the usual pecking order, but |I have doubts about his defensive attributes. He can play that deeper midfield role in the Premier League where his physicality is an asset but such a Stone Age approach will leave him chasing shadows at the Nou Camp. Denilson’s game is based around interceptions, good positioning and tidy passing and I feel he will thrive in this game in an understated role. That said, with Barcelona’s midfield likely to lack height with Busquets potentially operating at centre back, Diaby might offer us a sure-fire option for the long ball in the middle of the park.
Next to him goes Jack Wilshere, who was thankfully passed fit after a slight ankle concern. Wilshere was outstanding in the first leg against Barcelona, both in his defensive and offensive play. He drove forward with the ball despite Barcelona pressure and played a key role in ensuring we kept the ball when we had it. Cesc Fabregas will hopefully return to the side after a small hamstring issue. He’s rated as 90% likely to be fit by Arsène and will undoubtedly slot into the playmaking role if fit enough to do so.
Van Persie versus Bendtner is a tough one to call. While the Dutchman will undoubtedly get the nod if considered 100% fit, his return to fitness so ahead of schedule suggests their may be an element of gambling around this. While he came through a training session on Monday apparently unscathed, I’m unconvinced Wenger will start him if there is any concern over his fitness, and will instead keep him on the bench as an option. While I’d love to see Van Persie up against two makeshift centrebacks, Bendtner would have plenty of joy up against Busquets in the air too.
Out wide a resurgent Arshavin plays on the right and Nasri on the left. That’s a change from the usual, but the majority of their attacking threat from fullback originates from Alves, and Nasri is much better defensively. Either way, both of them will have to put in a shift defensively but still keep enough in the tank to catch Barcelona out on the counter attack. It’s not a task I envy of them, and with possession likely to be even more scarce than in the first leg all the attackers will be under enormous pressure to be efficient in front of goal when an opportunity arises.
Alves Busquets Abidal Maxwell
Messi Villa Pedro
For me, the weaknesses in that line-up are all at the back. Maxwell isn’t great at all and even though we won’t have Theo to torment him, Arshavin is more than capable of taking advantage of his defensive shortcomings. At centre back they have two players who aren’t playing in their favoured positions, though Abidal has experience at centre back. We’ll take advantage of their individual shortcomings and hope that their lack of familiarity as a partnership comes back to haunt them. Throw in a backup keeper in goal and we may be in for a pleasant evening if we can create chances.
Further forward, Arsenal fans will know Mascherano well from his time at Liverpool. He’ll do a great job defensively, but isn’t fantastic on the ball and won’t win much in the air either. Barcelona will have less possession due to him losing the ball more often than Busquets would and he is an obvious target for concentrated pressing from our forward line.
Apart from that it is very much business as usual from Barcelona. We know full well what their forward line can do, and with them searching for a goal we will need probably the best defensive performance of the season from our back five unit.
On the tactics side of things, it’ll be interesting to see how Barcelona set up their defensive line. Their stop-gap defensive options are just as good on the ball as Pique and Puyol so they shouldn’t have any qualms about playing a high line from that point of view. However with Pinto being slower than Valdes they might be cautious of balls being played in behind the defence and might be tempted to sit a little deeper than normal to compensate.
I said for the first leg but it is more valid than ever now: our set pieces will be key. With no “real” centrebacks on the field for Barcelona and no giants in attack, man for man we will be a taller side than them across almost the entire pitch. We have to be putting good deliveries into the box and taking advantage of this fact at every opportunity. How ironic it would be if the goal that won the tie between the two “footballistically” best sides in Europe was won by a header in the six yard box!
Enjoy the game Gunners – win or lose it’s sure to be a memorable one.