After three days in Barcelona, three days in Girona and a five hour train trip south, I am writing the preview to tomorrow’s game with the sound of firecrackers ringing in my ears in Valencia.
I had been all but assured tickets to the Nou Camp for Tuesday’s game but unfortunately things changed, so instead of heading back to Barcelona to watch it amongst the masses of Catalan supporters, I’ve decided to stay and watch the game in Valencia. I’m hoping it will be a happy occasion.
Both sides go into the game off the back of similar performances — but whereas Barcelona’s against Zaragoza translated into a 1-0 win, Arsenal were denied a victory as a result of poor officiating. I saw Barcelona play in the Nou Camp on Saturday and they were quite impressive, keeping the ball well and creating plenty of chances, but Arsenal played just as well earlier in the day.
The big contrast between the sides going into the game is the availability of their best players. Whereas Arsenal will miss Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and now Alex Song from the return leg Barcelona’s biggest concern is the absence of Gerard Pique through suspension. Otherwise they are at full strength. Meanwhile both Cesc Fabregas, who mercifully returns from injury, and Bacary Sagna, who missed the first leg through suspension, will play.
This tie is delicately poised. Barcelona have the stronger team but our boys have a lead to defend which could prove invaluable.
In a perfect world Arsene Wenger would have looked to play quite conservatively and use Walcott’s pace to hit Barcelona on the break. But with our quickest player unavailable, the manager will have to come up with an alternate plan.
It seems certain that Nicklas Bendtner will start up front in place of van Persie, with Andrey Arshavin on the left and Samir Nasri on the right. Bendtner and Arshavin generally work well together and the Russian has returned to form of late, so they will be a more difficult proposition than Barcelona would have foreseen a month ago. Nasri’s ability to hold up the ball under pressure will be vital in allowing the rest of the team time to move forward.
The biggest question mark for Wenger is who to play in Song’s position. Abou Diaby and Denilson are the two options, but neither are ideal. Denilson is not in good form while Diaby has not played enough games. The other factor to consider is that Denilson’s presence would allow Jack Wilshere to play with more freedom while Diaby would give us a more unique attacking thrust. The manager has a tough decision to make.
The loss of Pique will hurt Barcelona a lot. He is their primary distributor from the back as well as their tallest defender. Meanwhile his absence will see Eric Abidal forced into the centre to partner the returning Carlos Puyol, meaning the inclusion of Barcelona’s weakest link, Maxwell, at left-back. If Arshavin or Nasri get the opportunity to run at the Brazilian they could have some success.
Speaking with my good friend Oriol in Barcelona, the feeling amongst supporters of the home team is that they expect to win this tie. They have handled enough sticky situations over the past three seasons to instill a confidence in their supporters that this Arsenal team are yet to establish. They have great players, a strong record at home in all competitions and the history to give them belief to overturn the first leg deficit.
But just as Barcelona have belief, so do they have weaknesses. As we showed in the first leg, and as Zaragoza showed on Saturday evening — twice their forwards were through one-on-one with Victor Valdes after incisive, direct passes from Edmilson — they struggle against pace. Walcott might be out but in Nasri, Arshavin and Bendtner (yes, he looks clumsy, but he’s actually very fast), we have players high up the pitch capable of exposing that weakness.
What’s more, in Cesc Fabregas, we have a player capable of making the passes necessary to make that pace count. He missed last season’s encounter through injury but our captain will undoubtedly be fired up here, hoping to make his mark on the grandest of personal stages, in front of family and friends at the Nou Camp.
His first-leg performance was overshadowed by that of Wilshere but with Barcelona admitting a stronger focus on stopping the Englishman tomorrow, the opportunity could be there for Fabregas to make the decisive contribution to the game. A pass of the quality that set Nasri away in the first leg may be all it takes to turn the tie in our favour.
It may sound like a cliché but in many ways tomorrow’s game is no-lose for Arsenal. Should they get knocked out of the competition — as most people from Barcelona expect — then focus can switch the league, a competition that in a short amount of time has completely unfolded in front of them. Should they win, well, confidence would go through the roof.
A delightful game of football awaits. Enjoy it.
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