There is something quintessentially British about tonight’s Champions League second leg at the Camp Nou, something that harks back to the days of English clubs pre-ascendancy in the Champions League. Arsenal are clear underdogs despite a stirring comeback from 2 nil down at the Emirates last week, yet, even with a crippling injury list, they could well upset the odds.
Barcelona were simply sublime in the first half of last weeks encounter, but Arsene Wenger uncharacteristically made key mistakes. The first was to gamble on the fitness of too many of his players. The second was to sit too deep.
In a crucial Champions League tie you could perhaps get away with gambling on one of your star players, but to gamble on three of them was madness. One can understand why he wanted William Gallas on the pitch – Sol Campbell, despite performing admirably since his return, is not quick enough on the turn anymore to play a team like Barcelona. Mikael Silvestre is a good player, excellent in distribution, but not reliable enough as a center back for his manager to totally trust him, and Wenger would have been loathe to withdraw the combative Alexander Song from central midfield – an idea buttressed by the fact that Song was their best performer alongside Manuel Almunia in what was a fraught first half.
Interestingly, Denilson was excellent when he was introduced in the second; a real calming influence and reliable hub of possession, better, I would dare to suggest, than ‘Cesc Fabregas, who despite scoring a late penalty that kept his side in the tie, looked way off the pace in the first half, and only started to exert some influence in the second. But at what price? His yellow card and subsequent injury means he will take no part tonight, which is a massive blow.
Andrei Arshavin is also a big loss – his pace, skill and low center of gravity would have undoubtedly caused Barcelona problems on what is an extremely big pitch at the Camp Nou, especially given the nature and frequency of Dani Alves’ spectacular’ forays forward. They’ll still have Walcott, and it’s no overstatement to say he changed the course of the first leg, putting real pressure on Barcelona’s back line and the tired Maxwell in particular. Eric Abidal is likely to be restored to left-back this evening and he has already caustically claimed pace alone is enough to bother their defence, words which could well come back to haunt him.
Arsenal can take heart from several things – not least, the mental resilience evinced by their fight-back, but also from the fact that its highly unlikely Barcelona will be able to reproduce the quality of the football they played in the first half last week. They have set a standard they are going to struggle to match, and therefore the fulsome praise from Wenger and his players makes perfect sense.
Guardiola has already said its the best he has seen his side play since taking over – which is some claim – and whilst they will inevitably have moments of brilliance, the chances of them dominating in the manner they did in the first 25 minutes of that match are remote, they may even get anxious if they don’t dominate to quite the same extent.
Of course, Wenger will have to get his tactics right, and ensure his team press high up the pitch the way Barcelona did to them, as well as somehow nullifying the threat of Xavi Hernandez; the player without whom, Barcelona would be a changed proposition. But having a team of fit players should make a vast difference, and playing Samir Nasri in the Fabregas role offers a slightly different, but not greatly reduced threat.
Nasri was, overall, Arsenals best player last week; his balance and technique on the ball are exceptional and not only did he retain possession expertly, and under intense pressure, but he was very often the architect of Arsenals best attacks. He is more than capable of playing the role of conduit, which he did to devastating effect against Porto.
Barcelona will be without Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, undoubtedly the two best defenders at the club, and it will be interesting to see how Rafael Marquez and Gabriel Milito handle players with pace on the turn. Milito in particular, is still feeling his way back from over a year and half out of the game due to injury.
Perhaps of more importance to the Catalan giants however, will be the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a calf injury suffered before the win over Atletico Bilbao this weekend. He caused Arsenal untold problems last week as a graceful and inventive mix of point man and siphon, and Thierry Henry did nothing to suggest he is in the sort of form to be an efficacious replacement, whilst Bojan, despite being talented, still looks raw and one-dimensional at this point in time.
In the maelstrom of praise for Barcelona following the first leg there was one comment from Andres Iniesta which was most pertinent: “Praise makes you weak” he said, and Barcelona would do well to heed his wise words and retain some humility, as Wenger and his players have shown no hesitation in letting the public know just how good this Barca team are in the build up to the match. Its win-win for them: lose and one can hardly criticise, but emerge victorious, and your feat is magnified all the more, after all, everyone loves an underdog.