Arsenal versus Barcelona is almost upon us and the word ‘excitement’ just doesn’t do justice to how I am feeling.
Like Arsene Wenger I feel this tie has the ability to produce something special. So special, in fact, that we might indeed still be talking about it in 10 years time.
Barcelona will go in as deservedly clear favourites on account of their terrific success last season and the fact that they possess the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, in their ranks. But that’s not to say we don’t have a very good shot at upsetting the Spanish team.
An epic tie like this deserves and epic preview and that’s just what I’ve got for you today.
In it I outline the teams that I expect to step out at The Emirates on Wednesday night as well as the approach I expect us to take in a bid to knock out Barcelona and progress to our second consecutive Champions League semi-final.
Barcelona are not the Champions of Europe and the World for no reason and they will field an exceptionally strong team against us on Wednesday.
Both Messi and Arsenal old-boy Thierry Henry were rested for Barca’s weekend win over Mallorca and I expect both to start against us.
Eric Abidal and Gerard Pique have both recovered from injury to take their place in the squad, although I expect Pep Guardiola to plump for constancy and play Gabriel Milito alongside Carlos Puyol in the centre and Maxwell on the left of defence instead. Dani Alves will of course start at right-back.
The injury to Andres Iniesta means that Xavi should slot back into the side along the more physical Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita. Sergio Busquets is an option but Guardiola has a history of playing both Toure and Keita away from home in the Champions League to give the defence more support.
Up front Messi will start on the right side of a three-pronged attack that will also include Zlatan Imbrahimovic and that man Henry. Messi will of course float into the central areas, leaving Alves space to get down the right and much of our ability to stop Barcelona will come down to our ability to prevent Messi from having too much influence on the game.
The man who has the most important roll in preventing Messi’s influence will be Alex Song, who will surely return to his favoured position at defensive midfield. He will sit in front of a goalkeeper and four-man defence that will feature Manuel Almunia, Gael Clichy, Thomas Vermaelen, Sol Campbell and either Bacary Sagna or Emmanuel Eboue on the right.
Eboue has been in excellent form of late and the manager’s decision to leave him out of Saturday’s team completely suggests to me that he will start on Wednesday. Whether it is at right-back to counter Henry or on the wing to allow us a counter-attacking outlet and the ability to punish Barcelona’s weak spots (more on that later) I’m not sure, but I do feel he will start.
The official line from the manager is that Cesc is still a risk to miss out of this game but I can’t help feel this is nothing but mind games from Wenger. It would take something monumental to force Cesc to miss this game and I don’t think a bruised knee will be it. I expect him to play alongside Song and Abou Diaby in the middle.
Up front Nicklas Bendtner’s physical presence makes him a certainty while Andrey Arshavin will provide him support on one of the wings. Arshavin has a delightful habit of stepping up in the big games and he and Bendtner will need to have both excellent games and their shooting boots on if we are to come away with a win.
The final place should be taken by one of Eboue, as I mentioned earlier, or Samir Nasri who has scored excellent goals in the last three matches.
Wenger’s line will undoubtedly be for us to go out and play our natural game. But with an outstanding opponent it is absolutely vital that we play to our strengths and attempt to exploit the few weaknesses that Barcelona has.
Barcelona’s strongest weapon is obviously Messi drifting in from the right and with that in mind I feel Song needs to focus more on protecting Clichy and Vermaelen a little more than Campbell and whoever plays at right-back. The argument against this is that Messi could simply move the ball on quickly and allow Barcelona to attack down the left but if you ask me, I’d feel much more comfortable shutting down the right channel and letting Henry and Maxwell to run at us than Messi and Alves.
Tactically I also feel Eboue could be used in a specialist role to minimise the effectiveness of Alves on the right. Arshavin is hardly the fittest nor the most defensive player in our team and I wouldn’t mind seeing him given a go at Maxwell on the right, shifting Eboue on the left. Not only would Eboue’s athleticism nullify that of Alves but his pace would also give us a tremendous counter-attacking outlet that would force the Brazilian to sit a little deeper than perhaps he would like.
Question marks have been raised about Campbell’s lack of pace but the reality of the situation is that most of Sol’s work will come via the physical battles with Imbrahimovic, leaving Vermaelen to do a lot of the cleaning up on the ground. As long as Song gives Vermaelen the support required which, when you look at his season so far, seems highly likely I feel we have the ability to keep Barcelona from scoring or at the very least, preventing them from scoring more than we can cope with.
Both teams will get a lot of the ball at times and it’s important that we maintain our discipline when we don’t have it and ensure that we take our chances when we do. I mentioned earlier that Bendtner and Arshavin have struggled for consistency in front of goal recently but they have to take their chances on Wednesday or we face the risk of wondering what might have been.
For all of the tactical analysis the first leg will come down to how well we apply ourselves, our ability to avoid making the sort of silly defensive errors that have plagued our season and our forward players taking their chances.
Oh and watch out for Diaby. He was absolutely tremendous against Birmingham on the weekend and could be devastating if Barcelona on give him too much room to manouevre in midfield. With everybody focusing on Cesc I feel he could be the key man with regards to taking a vital lead into the return leg.
In my opinion we simply must win on Wednesday to stand any chance of progressing in this tie. While I don’t think it is impossible for us to get a result at the Camp Nou anything less than a first-leg lead would have us as massive outsiders to progress.
Obviously in these sorts of games avoiding concession of an away goal is of vital importance. But I honestly can’t see that happening and with that in mind I would be extremely satisfied with a 2-1 or even a 3-2 win at The Emirates.
It might pay to be a little cautious in the hope of getting a 1-0 result but with Wenger predicting this to be one of the best contests in recent history because of the quality of football on display, I just can’t see that happening.
When the draw was made I said this was the ultimate tie for Arsenal because it gave us the unique psychological advantage of being able to go in as underdogs. If we lose against Barcelona it will be disappointing but in many ways expected, but a memorable victory could give us the belief to push on and win the silverware that everybody at the club has been craving for five years.
To expect this Arsenal side to beat Barcelona over two legs is too much, in my opinion. But at this stage of the competition anybody can beat anybody and if our boys put in a performance full of heart and can play near their technical best then we could well be celebrating a semi-final spot in just over a week’s time.
A win at The Emirates on Wednesday would bring that opportunity just a little closer.
I’ll have some last-minute news in tomorrow’s blog but in the meantime, let me know your thoughts on Arsenal v Barcelona by leaving a comment.