Wednesday, 20:45 CET, it’s the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Leg 1, Arsenal vs Barcelona at the Emirates. If you like football, the actual game of football, not just “supporting” a team for bragging rights or “supporting” on a weekend basis, this is a game that just has to get your excited.
As we all know, we met each other last season in the quarterfinals, and by any account, we took them to the cleaners over the 180 minutes. In the first leg in London, we played maybe the most furious, fantastic 15 minutes of football I can ever remember. We came at them like a demon hell bent on tearing them to shreds, and we nearly did. Almunia came up trumps in those early minutes and pulled off some ridiculously stops to save Wenger’s men from serious embarrassment. We continued to batter them that entire first half but just could not break through. Zlatan had a horrendously awful miss in that half that some of the previous blog will remember I commented at half time, only for him to spite me later on (which I was glad he did). Our former big Swede came up nicely in the 2nd half with an awesome finish just 25 seconds after the restart with a glorious chip over Almunia. He got a second just before the hour mark. Nevertheless, Walcott came on in the 66th minute and had an immediate impact when he blazed through the defense and made it 2-1. The game was then a lot tighter and just 5 minutes from time Arsenal got a bit of a lucky penalty (in my opinion), when Puyol was judged to barge into the back of Fabregas in the box. Our former son then stepped up and knocked the penalty in and Arsenal some how got a 2-2 draw in a match where they could have easily lost by 3 or 4.
Then they came to the Camp Nou, and after 18 minutes, despite being totally dominated by us, Bendtner gave the Gunners a surprise lead. However, then stepped up Messi. Our boy genius scored an outstanding hatrick in just 19 minutes and eliminated all hopes from the English team. The second half we were never in huge trouble and in the 87th minute Messi ended the game with his and our 4th of the night.
Now, I live in a very Premier League dominated country, and I can tell you Arsenal fans were fully aware of how we dismantled them. Arsenal are definitely the side in Europe that most closely emulates our style of play. I’ve heard nicknames like “Barça-lite” for them, which is a way rival fans wind them up, saying basically they try to be us but are a light version. I mean, when the Champions League draw in December came out, some of the comments in mailboxes and forums on English football sites were hilarious because many Gunner fans were truly terrified. Even now, I doubt any Arsenal fan isn’t apprehensive.
Having also lived in this Prem dominated place most my life, Arsenal are the team I rout for in England. Reasons are rather obvious. I believe fundamentally football should be played the way we, Arsenal, and some like Villarreal play it. So, routing for Arsene and his boys was quite natural because I believe Wenger deserves success for his football philosophy and practice. The truth is, Arsenal can play some absolutely scintillating football that is a joy to watch. As a result, I know Arsenal basically in and out.
So let us start off with this: Arsenal are better equipped to play us now than last season. Last year Fabregas was basically rushed into the first leg and as a result of worsening the injury did not play at the Camp Nou. Arsenal were also going through a defensive crisis at the time (which anyone who follows them will know is rather a common issue. Arsenal seemingly have the worse medical staff in Europe because the amount and length of injuries they get it at times almost beyond belief). Gallas was essentially forced into the 1st leg but only lasted 45 minutes, and the experienced Frenchman didn’t make the return tie. Sol Campbell also couldn’t play in Spain, neither Arshavin or key defensive midfielder Song. Add to that, Van Persie was on another of his long spells out never faced us. Now, in my honest opinion, I do not think much of that would have made a difference. I think we were just too hot back then, though, starting Silvestre was never going to end well for them. But, I haven’t even mentioned up to now that we went into that second leg without Puyol, Pique, or Ibrahimovic. We fundamentally and thoroughly beat Arsenal over those two legs, not even the most bias of Gunners I think would argue.
Fast forward nearly 1 year, I think the story is a bit different. 26 games into their domestic season, Arsenal are in 2nd place, 4 points of leaders Manchester United, and for most people’s money the only legitimate challenger to Sir Alex’s team. They are currently 8 games undefeated, 7 of those being wins. But, the teams they have defeated are Wolves, Everton, Huddersfield Town, Wigan, Leeds, West Ham, and Ipswich. So, not exactly the crème de la crème of football, with all due respect.
Arsenal are a very unique team. They can really dazzle but can also be so calamitous and self-destructive. Just over 10 days ago, they went up 4-0 at St. James’ Park in Newcastle, only to draw the game 4-4. These types of self-implosions happen to Arsenal with enough frequency that many regards this as the number one reason why Arsenal get close to winning the league, but eventually haven’t made it in so long. A similar thing happened against Wigan in December when they didn’t convert enough of their millions of chances and let Wigan equalize 2-2 at the dying moments of the game. They also lost at home to Newcastle, West Brom, and cross-town rivals Tottenham. Nevertheless, Arsenal have had a few big wins this season. They crushed oil rich Manchester City 3-0 away from home, but by far their most momentous win of the season was the 3-1 victory against Chelsea.
Now that game brings us to the second of Arsenal’s major recent faults. Before that 3-1 win against Chelsea, Arsenal had managed just 1 point in their last 11 (33 possible points) games against Man United and Chelsea. If you haven’t quite worked that out, that’s 0 wins, 1 draw, and 10 defeats. It was truly an abysmal record and many would say, “yeah, Arsenal can smash 5 or 6 past the bottom clubs, but they can’t play with the big boys”.
So, that brings us to now. How does Arsenal look right now, and how are they different from 2009? I’d say a major change is in goals. Almunia lost Wenger’s confidence early on this year and is almost certain to leave during the summer. In stepped 25 year old Polish keeper Lukasz Fabianski, who for a long while was referred to by many as “Flapianski”, referring to his reputation of making silly mistakes whenever given a chance in goal. Fabianski actually did well when given the number 1 spot and proved many critics wrong, but an injury saw another Polish keeper, who has very few vowels in his name, Wojciech Szczesny take number 1. Recently, Wenger said he believes this Pole is the future number one of his team. He is a solid goalkeeper from what I’ve seen, nothing flashy or extravagant, but safe and secure. But, he has very little big match experience and no experience of the type of night he will face Wednesday.
The defense is a critical point of analysis. They have defensive issues (no surprise there), mainly in the middle. Sagna, a competent defender and Clichy, who despite probably having his weakest season ever, is easily among the best left-backs in Europe, occupy their normal right and left back slot. I will say though that Clichy must be careful not to push up too high and leave his defense exposed.
However, the middle is a different story. Arsenal’s undisputed best defender Thomas Vermaelen has been injured nearly all season, and will not play. This season at center back Wenger has used Swiss Johan Djorou, new man Laurent Koscielny, and former Sevilla player Sebastien Squillaci. And honestly, in many games this season, Arsenal’s center backs have looked rather poor and that is where most feel we will exploit them. Arsenal have conceded 27 goals in their 26 matches thus far, compared our 12 in 23. Squillaci, for lack of a better word, has looked total rubbish since moving there and I’m quite sure won’t play, and Koscielny, despite being technically solid, lacks some of the toughness required in a great centerhalf. But to be fair, both have been chucked in the deep end as they are both new and haven’t had someone like Vermalean to help them adapt to the system and leauge.
Djourou has broken through as the key man at the back. The Swiss international has been very unlucky with injures during his young career, last year he only played 1 match due to a knee problem. Even this year he has been in and out of the team with small problems, and last weekend in that 4-4 disaster against Newcastle he went off injured and fans feared it was serious. It wasn’t and he will play against us. Personally, Djorou isn’t anything special. He has grown as the season went by but I remember a few of the earlier games in 2010, he looked rather suspect. Nevertheless, the facts is that with Djorou playing Arsenal have conceded a goal domestically ever 251 minutes, but without him, a goal every 54.
Now onto the midfield. The man of the year at Arsenal has without question been Samir Nasri. This season he has really fulfilled the promise and potential we all use to hear he had when he was at Marseille. Arsenal fans have theorized that sensing Fabregas will return to us in the summer, Nasri felt it was his time to really step up and take command of this team and in 2010 he was truly on fire. He was scoring dazzling goals week in, week out. The Frenchman however is also struggling with injury and if he plays, he will most definitely not be 100% nor match fit. The other major story at the club is young Englishman Jack Wilshere. Now look, this kid is very good, I’m a big fan of his. He is the most naturally technically gifted player in the English team and that country is getting very excited about his future. And of course, there is Fabregas, who has been playing at a high level again recently but more importantly, he is showing lots of heart and passion, that some felt he was lacking early on in the year (when they said he was thinking about his failed move to join us).
Song is going to be important for them over the two legs. He is the only big, strong midfielder that could play the destroyer role. The funny thing is though he enjoys going forward much more than defending, and Wenger seems not be restricting his play to that space in front of the defense. If he isn’t disciplined in staying back that could hurt them.
Rounding off the midfield we have Arshavin, who on a side note was desperate to join us before finally going to Arsenal. He was to be blunt bloody awful for most the year and fans were quite tired of his lazy attitude, but he has been getting better than last few weeks and posses a threat with his technical skills and rocket of a shot. The lightening quick (but still suspect passer and crosser) Theo Walcott will also feature at some point or another and his pace on the counter attack will be a threat we need to watch.
But maybe the biggest difference to last year is that Robin Van Persie is fit and he is in hot form with 4 goals in his last 2 games. When not injured, which hasn’t been often in his 5 year Arsenal spell (just 146 appearances in around 275 potential ones), Van Persie is among the finest strikers in the world. He has pace, skill, technique, and a vicious left foot. He will be the major danger when it comes to goal threat. Wenger also brought in Marouane Chamakh from Bordeaux this off-season and to provide Arsenal with that “Plan B” story of power, height, and physical presence. He started off hot with several goals early on but has cooled off significantly since then. Personally, I don’t rate him much. He is clumsy on the ball, slow, and cannot create.
That’s Arsenal. In a nutshell, they have a solid but unproven keeper, a very suspect center back situation that teams far lesser than us have cut open particularly in the air, an unfit Nasri, talented but also very young and inexperienced at the top stage Wilshere, the proven Culé Cesc, and a potentially lethal Dutch man upfront.
Now Barça. Our section will be a lot smaller seeing as readers here follow us week to week and nothing should be too surprising. A big thing on many Barça minds must be, how will the Gijon result impact us? Personally, I think it will help. It one of those reminders that no matter how great you are, you must be at your best whether against Real Madrid, Arsenal, or Sporting Gijon. Furthermore, Pep gets his teams ready for the big games, under his reign we just have never shied away from the grand occasion. We seem to love the big nights.
Personnel wise, the glaring and only issue is our brave captain Carles Puyol will not play. Now, this is a loss, no doubt about it. Puyol is simply a legendary defender and I have never seen him underperform in the games that matter (in 99% of all games actually). His leadership, passion, and unrelentless effort cannot be replaced. Furthermore, I think he helps Pique be a better defender. Gerard is if not the best, among the elite few center backs in Europe, but with Puyi at his side, I think he feels more confident and in control. Saturday night you definitely saw he felt uncomfortable with Milito. But, we do have Abidal. Abidal has been basically perfect at center back this year and has blown away many fans who were someone skeptical of his ability in that role. Now look, as I mentioned once in a huge center back debate a few years back, the center is Eric’s self proclaimed favorite position. Having Abidal in such good form is really critical for us, because he provides many aspects of Puyol’s game. Pique is on the slow side, and when a quick forward does get that yard on him, he cannot catch him. That is what makes the Pique/Puyol partnership so great: they compliment each others strengths and weaknesses. Puyol is fast and athletic and will put in those last ditch tackles when need be. Abidal can do similar. He is fast and powerful and can get back in case Pique’s pace is ever exposed. I really don’t think Millito will start as his obvious lack of playing time was rather evident during the weekend. It is also nice to know we have the safe and clever Valdes covering. Everyone should have noted how on the weekend he played keeper-sweeper on several occasions to snuff out dangerous counter attacks.
Otherwise, it should be the same story. Busquets comes back into his role, Xavi and Iniesta partner him, and we have the deadly trident of Messi, Villa, and Pedro upfront. Now, I know Villa hasn’t set the Camp Nou alight this year, but I’m still absolutely 100% happier having him in the line up than you know who. His finish against Gijon was wordlcass, because well, he is wordclass, one of the elite few strikers in the past 5 or 6 years. His passing and vision is also top draw.
So that’s it, I know it was rather lengthy, but I hope you enjoyed it. Can we beat Arsenal? Of course. If we played them 10 times, we’d probably win 7 of them. As good as Nasri is, I’d say Iniesta is better. As brilliant as Fabregas is, it is Xavi who he tries to emulate. Wilshere is a talent, but what can he do it if we don’t let him touch the ball, if we don’t allow him time and space? I think we are the superior team in all aspects of the pitch, and I doubt many aside from a staunch Gunner would argue. But this is knockout football, over two ties yes, but still the margin for error isn’t high. If we go in underprepared, not focused, not totally respectful of our opponent, we can lose. Just one mistake can be so costly. I truly believe we can score against Arsenal, and maybe score many, but this year I think the threat of them scoring is larger than last year.
It will also be interesting to see Wenger’s tactics. He said at home they will attack and try to win, and frankly, I’ve never seen Arsenal try another way. Can they even play another way? We can’t. It’s very risky to try and completely alter the football philosophy you play every week just for one match. The players Wenger has brought to Arsenal simply are not trained or geared for that type of ”anti-football” game. Yes Inter shut us out (well not really if Bojan’s legit goal had stood), but that team was geared to do so. It has veteran midfielders who are very adept in the defensive game (Motta, Stankovic) and brutish thugs like Lucio and Samuel to frustrate us. Arsenal don’t have that. If you ask Fabregas, Wilshere, and Walcott to defend, I just don’t think they will be very good at it.
This is a cracking encounter, and at the conclusion of this piece, I’v realized my excitement for the game has only risen and risen, but I have a healthy dose of nerves also. It is an advantage to play first in England so no matter what, Wednesday isn’t the end. At our best, we can and some will say should win, but football isn’t won in theory and speculation. Arsenal are hungry to beat us and have the ability to do so. I wager these 90 minutes of football should provide a fair few thrills.