Advantage Arsenal but can they keep up with Barcelona?


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Barcelona v Arsenal
Second Round, UEFA Champions League
Tuesday, 08 March 2011
Kickoff: 19:45 GMT / 20:45 CET

The absence of key Barcelona defenders, Guardiola’s back problem, Arsenal’s 2-1 lead and a new-found confidence in the domestic league means that the Gunners travel to Camp Nou looking forward to upsetting the Spanish club. Although you cannot discount Barcelona’s attacking prowess – and indeed the match could be over in the first half – Arsenal have the quality to at least score once in the second leg – and given their 1-goal advantage from the first leg, it all points to a close and most-watchable Champions League match.

Arsenal Preview

Arsenal go into the game knowing that theirs is not a defensive game – and even if Mascherano figures that Arsenal will sit back (and at some stage it’s likely that they will), Arsenal are better at going forward and scoring creating chances. As Wenger rightly said, you can’t go to Barcelona’s home ground and expect to defend a 1-goal lead. A 1-0 defeat won’t help Arsenal – Barcelona have that crucial away goal – so Arsenal must score at least once, and then either count on their players’ being fitter than their Spanish counterparts over 120 minutes or so, or push forward and score a second goal.

Pundits are split on how Arsenal will play this game – and the usual advice on how to beat Barcelona comes down to a high-tempo, narrow, highly-disciplined performance that relies on quick counter-attacks. What you’re going to see from Arsenal though, is more of the same from the Emirates – perhaps not as high a defensive line as then, but definitely a pushed-up defense with a team-wide remit to counter-attack at every opportunity, targeting the wide spaces (with Alves bombing forward and Maxwell as the left-back).

Pushing up and narrowing the space also gives Barcelona’s midfield less room to manouever, although if Messi were to get the same chances as he did at the Emirates it’s unlikely he’ll miss them again. Arsenal may look to double-team on Messi a la United and Chelsea, but the driving force behind Arsenal’s strategy to the game must be to restrict space, use a higher tempo that Arsenal are more familiar with thanks to the Premier League than Barcelona in Spain, and attack with pace.

Most teams look to get an early advantage over Barcelona because they know if Barcelona are able to ‘play themselves in’, they’ll take over the game. Arsenal did the opposite and wore Barcelona down over the whole 90 minutes. They will look to do the same again, only this time they need to take their chances and hope Barcelona miss theirs.

Barcelona Preview

No Pique, no Puyol and Guardiola down with back-knack. Once again Barcelona are without their best defenders going into a big Champions League game against top-quality Premier League opposition, but what will bother them is the fact that they weren’t able to keep pace with Arsenal at the Emirates over the full 90 minutes. The need to take their chances when they come up early in the game (and they will) is a must, but the longer the game goes on without Barcelona clearly on top, the tougher it will be for the players to beat Arsenal.

In his pre-match conference, Guardiola (back from the hospital) was asked about Wilshere, and part of his response talked about how Arsenal are not under pressure to win titles. In a limited context that may be true and Guardiola may simply be sharing his envy for Wenger’s stable position, but every club is under pressure to compete at a high level, to beat their contemporaries and to challenge for the highest position possible given the resources at their disposal. Arsenal are under pressure to win titles at all times, even if the board, the manager and the fans are phenomenally good at deflecting that pressure by using other success factors as mitigating excuses. There’s no excuse for failure, and Barcelona know that as well as anyone else. Guardiola’s comments were more an indication of the pressure Barcelona are under going into this game than anything Arsenal have to deal with.

More Guardiola quotes:

“I want all the great players to play, everyone against everyone and see a great show tomorrow. I hope they are all in the team – Van Persie, [Samir] Nasri, Cesc [Fábregas]. I want [Alex] Song to play, because I would like to play the best possible Arsenal. If Van Persie plays, then no problem.

Arsenal have many alternatives, are very dynamic and can play in different positions. Their counterattack is great; we will try to prevent that. This is always a special game in the Champions League and it is a magnificent challenge.

I keep hearing about the fragility in the minds of the Arsenal players, but I do not agree. They are competing with Manchester United for the Premier League, reached the final of the Carling Cup and a few seasons ago were in the final of the Champions League. Arsenal are always in the top, when you compete every season at the top, it is because you are quality.”

How will Barcelona play – again, more of the same that we saw at the Emirates, but with a more patient start as Barcelona look to dominate the whole 90 minutes (and beyond), and perhaps a focus on dropping lower on the pitch to retain possession and building attacks from deep. We keep hearing stats about how Barcelona players spend all their time in the opposition half, but you can expect them to drop back a bit this game as they look to carve Arsenal apart with precision as opposed to blowing them away with persistent brilliance.

Also See: Play Like Barcelona in Football Manager.

Barcelona v Arsenal Predictions

3-1 to Barcelona, possibly going into extra time.

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