I don’t think anyone will argue this isn’t Barça’s most important game of the season, at the very least, most exciting and nerve-wracking. Yes, the home match against Real Madrid back in November and the away match in Valencia just last week were crucial, in terms of the league, but the Champions League brings with it a whole different kind of pressure and prestige. One reason is that the sports press from across Europe like to watch these games and judge a team entirely by the few performances in the Champions League. As many here commented on during the 1st-leg, the British media in particular were ready to label us “not as good” as we have been made out to be. The other reason tomorrow’s game is so important is, well, to be frank, we are better than Arsenal, and to lose to them will be a disappointment. This special group of players at Barça is historic, unprecedented and we need to capitalize on it by winning as many Champions Leagues as possible. Otherwise, in years to come, many will remember this great team, but hanging 2 or 3 more European trophies in the cabinet is the best way to validate us for eternity. Every year we do not win it, feels like a big opportunity lost. In the late 90s and early 2000s, we would play this competition and just hope to win it. When we got knocked out, it was disappointing but not heartbreaking as we knew going in for it we were not favourites and our history in the competition gave us little expectation. But since the win in 2006 and the culture of winning and excellence that has been installed by Laporta, Rijkaard, and now Guardiola, the mindset has obviously changed, and rightly so. Going out so early in the knock out stage will be a real shame.
Let’s start with our opponents. Since the euphoria following the 2-1 victory 3 weeks ago, there have been quite a few negative news stories. The first was their extremely disappointing 2-1 defeat to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. Arsenal bossed the 2nd half of that game and created a vast amount of chances that were either squandered or saved by Ben Foster. Then, come the 89th minute, a communication blunder between Koscienly and Szczesny caused a colossal error which resulted in the ball falling to the foot of Obafemi Martins with a wide open net. The main theme coming out of that result was along the lines of, “of course that’s how Arsenal would cock it up” or “typical”. Goalkeeping blunders have been a sour point at the Emirates the last few seasons, starting with Almunia, then Fabianksi (affectionately called ‘Flapianski’ by the press), and now the keeper that everyone thought looked the business, Szczesny.
There has also been a host of injury problems which will result in Song, Van Persie, and Walcott not featuring tomorrow night. Now, each one of these injuries benefit us in a very real way. Song is really the only hard man (but still technically very solid) in the midfield that will put in the big tackles and use his physical presence to disrupt us, Van Persie is their best striker, and with no Walcott their threat of counter attack is very much diminished. Fabregas picked up another hamstring injury during a 1-0 home win to Stoke on February 23rd and has been missing since. He was passed fit today, but still, he won’t be at 100% physically. Wilshere is fit also, after slight discomfort with an ankle issue.
On our side, the glaring news report is that our brave captain Puyol seems certain to miss the match. Yesterday afternoon a report was published saying the Barcelona medical staff have “confirmed” Puyol will not be cleared for tomorrow. Now, personally, I won’t fall off my chair in surprise if I see him lead the team out tomorrow night because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Other than that, we were boosted with the return of Victor Valdes Saturday night. Despite sitting idle and watching the game for probably 85 of the 90 minutes, the few times, one in particular, he needed to be fully focused and make an important save, he did just that. Having him tomorrow is extremely important. It is made even more important by the fact that because Pique is again suspended for this tie; essentially our favored center back pairing will not play. Abidal, who could be candidate for player of the season, has been brilliant in the center, so that brings some comfort. But who will join him? The reports are, and I personally would also guess, that Pep is going to go with Busquets as a false center back and have Mascherano in the midfield for protection. However, he could go with Milito, who had quite a solid showing Saturday. Other than that, we are at full strength. Xavi is recovered and there are no other notable injuries. Our 11 should be Valdes, Alves, Busquets, Abidal, Maxwell, Xavi, Mascherano, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi and Villa.
Now I’m not always a huge fan of statistics and history, because all that matters is what happens on the day, but they are interesting nonetheless. The recent defeat was our first against Arsenal in 6 total encounters, in which we have won 3 and drawn 2, including the 2-1 victory in the 2006 Champions League Final. In two-legged ties where we have gone down 2-1 in the first leg, we have progressed twice and failed twice, so not much to that. When Arsenal have won the first leg at home, they have progressed 14 of 15 times, the only defeat coming in Spain against Valencia in 2000/1.
The referee will be Swiss man Massimo Busacca. Busacca is one of the most prominent officials in the world these days, but I can’t say he’s my favourite (though these days not many are). He has some very good matches but is known for a few controversial calls here and there. Anyway, we shouldn’t let a referee decide this game and hopefully nothing worth talking about will happen.
We’re only down 2-1 people. Honestly, whether we had won, drawn, or lost in the first leg, our style of play and objective come tomorrow would have been no different. The objective is the same: win, and win with as many goals as we can. Mathematically we only need 1-0. The only thing we must try and avoid is conceding more than 1, if they get two away goals, for example at 2-2, I’ll start to squirm a little. This is the most eagerly anticipated and talked about footballing match of the year. Two teams dedicated to playing football the beautiful way again go head to head, but this time, the student holds a small advantage over the teacher. It’s going to be a cracker.