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Arsenal v Barca, previewed by Phil Gregory
Well here we are people, the big one, Barcelona. Win or lose, I think we’re all expecting a real feast of football, and both legs promise to be nights that will be etched into our memories.
A quick glance at the Barcelona website reveals a club thinking in the same way as we were prior to our trip to Porto: we don’t want to lose, and we’d like to score.
A lot of fans are building Barcelona up into something they’re not; this team is beatable. As all fans do, we look at our own team in a much harsher light than we look at other sides. Some may wonder “if we can’t beat Birmingham, how can we beat Barcelona?” but this sort of logic (in the weakest sense of the word) doesn’t stand up to much. If Barcelona concede twice to Zaragoza (Spain’s Hull/Wigan) how many times will we score against them? It goes both ways.
Much like us, this Barcelona defence isn’t much great shakes, though I will admit they’ve conceded less than half a goal a game. This is more down to their team-wide defensive effort: hard pressing from the front once possession is lost. The logic is clear: it’s proven that teams are a lot more likely to score when they win the ball in the final third than if they pass their way through to the final third.
Most likely, the “transition phase” immediately after winning possession creates a window of opportunity as good as the best passing move.
We must watch this. While our gung-ho approach is more than just admirable from an aesthetic point of view, it yields us results. Many criticise our forward-running centrebacks, but for me it is a tactical masterstroke: who marks Vermaelen or Gallas when he storms forward?
All things equal, surely the free man on the opposing team is their centre forward, who is most likely fifty yards away. Given the calibre of our passing, a free man is an absolutely priceless commodity to have, and I don’t think Barcelona will have experienced the like before.
We can get at their defence. Whenever I’ve watched Brazil, Dani Alves has always functioned as a right winger, with Maicon storming past him on the overlap. Alves is, to me, a weakness. I’d expect to see Arshavin put him through his paces, but the Russian must be aware and track back too. In that regard, Song will have a major role to play too, as we can expect the Catalans to push their fullbacks forward whenever possible, and the Cameroonian must be mobile and aware to prevent a 2 on 1 situation emerging.
On the other flank, Abidal is out for both legs of the tie, and Brazilian Maxwell has deputised in recent games. Maxwell has, like Alves played higher up the flank in the past and while admittedly I haven’t seen much of him, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be weaker defensively than the Frenchman who also plays centreback at international level. If Samir is given the nod to play wide right, I’d love to see a rerun of his magic feet against Porto for THAT goal.
Both Marquez and Pique are noted for their ability on the ball (both have spent time in the holding role for various clubs in their careers) and ability to chip in with the odd goal but as out and out defenders I don’t see them as superior to our Gallas and Vermaelen.
Though I’ve not even given a mention to Puyol and Milito, both who have figured regularly this season. Puyol seems to be more of a traditional no-nonsense, all commitment centreback, and interestingly comes in at under six foot, much like Vermaelen.
I’m not well informed enough on Spanish football to predict who’ll line up for the Catalans, though it’ll most likely be club captain Puyol partnered by either Pique or Marquez.
We know that their main midfield man, Iniesta is out which is a boost for us. I’d expect a midfield of Xavi partnering either of Busquets/Keita, with Yaya holding. Looking at that, I frankly, I think we can win the midfield battle, especially if Cesc’s fit, but more on that later.
In the forward positions, Pedro has been impressive for them (so much so that he has kept Henry out of the team) though we could see TH14 in that wide left berth. Ibrahimovic will no doubt start at centre forward, with the sublime Lionel Messi finishing off their attacking trident.
Ibrahimovic is starting to justify his fee with goals recently, though it is Messi who has stolen the show. It’s not possible to stop the little Argentine in his current form, so we should look to impose ourselves on the opposition. As I pointed out earlier, Song’s support is crucial when the ball goes down the flanks but we can’t tie our fullbacks to our own half. By allowing them to play the game as they know iut best, they can force errors from their opposite numbers and expose the weaker defence of the Catalans. I’d also back Sagna to keep anything they put down the left flank quiet all game.
But there’s a further problem: the current talk is that Fabregas has a 40% chance of playing, but that Gallas is in the squad. I am taking it that Fabregas will be fit, but Gallas will be on the bench. But of course that could change around.
Sagna Campbell Vermaelen Clichy
Nasri Bendtner Arshavin
Although we could just as likely see:
Sagna Song Vermaelen Clichy
Nasri Bendtner Arshavin.
Having typed it out, I’m leaning towards Arsène going for the 2nd of the two lineups I’ve put up. I’m unsure if Sol will be given the nod (he will have had a bit of respite given we played on a Saturday and Wednesday) though I know Arsène will make the right call.
I’m not convinced Song is vital to decide the midfield battle. This will not be a physical game: filling space, interceptions and tidy use of possession will be what win us the game here, and those are three things I associate with Denilson. I’d love to see Diaby involved in this game, he could have a massive say in the outcome. His ability to keep possession combined with a physicality that Barcelona won’t see very much of at all makes me think the young Frenchman has a big role to play, if passed fit.
Nasri, although by all rights performing better in recent times from the middle of the park, can play wide and I expect him to put in a big performance against Barcelona’s makeshift rightback. Worried about your place in the France squad, Samir? Here’s a chance to stake your claim with the world watching.
Arshavin versus Alves is a key contest in this match, but I’ve already touched on it so onto Nik Bendtner. We all know the Dane loves the big occasion, and with a Champions League hat trick under his belt, he’s right up there with the top scorers in the competition. He’s played some great games for us recently, and I fully expect him to have the beating of Barcelona’s centrebacks in the air. It could be crucial, allowing us a route one option on the counter attack.
I don’t expect Theo to start, possession will be gold and that’s not his strong point. Late on, as an impact substitute he could well figure, the plan B so to speak. There will be space behind Barcelona’s fullbacks for him to exploit, and who better than Theo to take advantage?
Eboue? More likely to replace the right forward late on if we have an advantage to hold on, I’d expect. He’s good at defending from the front, but is great on the counter and can take advantage of tired legs.
I’m going to go for 2-1 to the Arsenal, or a 2-2 draw. With the away goals rule, a 2-1 victory is only a narrow, narrow victory, but I’d be more than happy with it. This tie isn’t like any other: can you imagine either side trying (or managing to) shut up shop with an advantage in the second leg? Not a chance.
There’ll be goals in both legs, and we’ll get our fair share of them. Barcelona’s greatest defensive strength is their possession play, and it remains to be seen how well they react to a side who can keep the ball as well (or better) than themselves.
Win or lose, this will be a match to remember. Enjoy it wherever you are watching it.
The Untold Index
Billy the Dog’s take on Barca: Welcome to the pig’s head
Enjoy the Barca game: they are about to go bust. Tony Attwood
The day the modern Arsenal was born. Tony Attwood
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