A Champions League Preview is always a pleasure to write, but presents stylistic problems after the long and unforgiving winter break. Where do I begin? Need I mention the madness that has become the January transfer window, the weeks of league play that have happened since December, or, perhaps, speculate as to what Platini and his cronies have been up to with all of that UEFA money? There’s simply too much to rehash for these pages. I’ll speak to the affects of this weekend’s game in Asturias, but we must first look forwards to look back.
The Champions League has returned, and once again the Culé faithful find themselves flying off to North London to face a side that many describe as Barcelona’s counterpart in the English Premier League. Full of young attacking players that like to run at defenders, Arsenal should present quite a challenge: the likes of Arshavin, Walcott, Van Persie, they all know how to play against the best teams in the world, and their speed and combination play on the counter attack leaves opponents stunned. Marshaled from midfield by Cesc Fàbregas (I’ll restrain myself from referring to him as “our” Fabregas, albeit through gritted teeth) this is an Arsenal side that is, on paper, in better form than the team the Catalans faced in last season’s quarter finals. The probable return of Nasri from injury, who has been excellent so far, could only boost the strength of this side.
Despite the seemingly endless talent spilling out of the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal had some trouble reaching this stage of the competition. A tough draw in Group H saw them finish second behind winners Shakhtar Donetsk, with a motley display of crushing victories (6-0 at home against Portugal’s Sporting Braga) intermingled with some surprising losses (2-1 away to eventual winners Shakhtar). Don’t let the haphazard group results fool you; Arsenal took their time warming up, and although their play in Europe has been fairly inconsistent over the last few seasons, Arsène Wenger’s men will be waiting to avenge last season’s trouncing inflicted by Guardiola et all.
Which brings us to last season’s quarter final match up. For many the first leg in London represents the finest display of footballing prowess in recent memory, with Barcelona dominant in possession, passing the ball around as though they were playing an under-18 side. A 2-2 tie, a scoreline that flattered the Gunners, brought these two teams back to the Camp Nou, where Lionel Messi once again decided to remind the world why he is - fill in your superlative of choice. The now infamous one-man demolition resulted in a 4-1 win, with Arsenal left to fly home contemplating a 6-3 aggregate loss.
This time around expect something different. No, it’s not yet time to be contemplating an away loss (more on that later), but following this weekend’s last-gasp tie to Sporting Gijón in La Liga a bit of team dissection is necessary.
Firstly, let’s all agree that these mid-season, random international dates are a disaster for club teams, players, coaches, fans, pretty much everyone but Sepp Blatter’s ego. They accomplish nothing more than to give players an opportunity to get themselves injured in games that mean absolutely nothing, and to disrupt whatever rhythm a club has developed since the Christmas break. But I digress.
Saturday’s display against Gijón taught us a few things about some of our players. For on thing, it’s clear that Afellay has yet to completely adapt to the Blaugrana approach of total football. While he didn’t play poorly, his lack of movement off the ball saw him substituted at the half for Pedro; it will take time for him to fully fit in, but nobody should blame him for that. Although Mascherano played part of the game as a defensive midfielder and then covered the CB position when Milito was taken off, expect to see Busquets in the midfield instead of him.
What else can be taken away from our hard-fought draw at the Molinón, aside from the fact that Piqué is in-fact mortal? Really, it’s that Gijón illustrated precisely how to play against a Barcelona side that has dominated opponents so far this season, giving a preview of the type of game that can be expected from Arsenal. It’s not that Messi must be marked by three men at all times, since that was clearly ineffective for Arsenal last season at the Camp Nou; it’s that the play in midfield, from where most of the Catalan’s goals are created, must be disrupted. It’s the pass into Messi that must be stopped, because once he’s been given the pass there’s little anyone can do to stop him from scoring. Expect Arsenal to hound Xavi and Iniesta in the middle, slowing down Barcelona’s tempo. As we saw on Saturday, once this happens a pass will eventually go astray: given that our wing-backs are frequently involved in buildup play down the field, it gives opposing teams an opportunity to flood players down the flanks. Two defenders in the middle of the field, even of the quality of Gerard Piqué, cannot effectively stop three or four attackers.
Alright, now that all of that is out of the way, let’s take a look at the team as they will probably come out of the tunnel on Wednesday evening.
For Barcelona, it’s an easy call. Coach Guardiola has said that Puyol is “almost certain” to miss the midweek European encounter, so expect to see Abidal lining up next to Piqué in the middle, with Alves and Maxwell on the wings. In midfield, following Mascherano’s less than impressive performance at the weekend, anything but the Iniesta-Busquets-Xavi trifecta would be a surprise, although Guardiola may opt for Mascherano’s experience with the English game and on an outside possibility put both him and Busi on the field, one of them covering the CB position while Abidal goes back to stabilize the LB postion. As for our strikers, no surprises here: Villa, Messi, and Pedro should start up-top. Oh, and of course, we cannot forget Valdés in goal (although kudos must be given to the hapless Pinto, who managed to get a yellow card from the bench at the weekend).
For Arsenal, it’s another story. The situation in goal is, frankly, beyond confusing: Almunia was on the bench against Wolverhampton on Saturday, but Poland’s Wojciech Szczęsny played the entire game (somebody buy that man some vowels!), With Fabianski out for the entire season through shoulder injury, expect Szczesny to start between the sticks. The back four is easier to predict: Bakary Sagna while consistently excellent, is out on a suspension. Johan Djourou, Eboue, Gaël Clichy, and Laurent Koscielny should round out the remaining spots. Now the prediction problems begin again. Arsenal have a terrible habit of blending together midfielders and strikers, and really only have two non-attacking midfielders in Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. The more or less guaranteed starters are Fàbregas, Van Persie, the recently impressive Wilshere, and Arshavin. But then who: Walcott, Song, Denilson? I’m going to say Walcott because his speed down the wings would be quite useful in opening up the Barcelona defense. But it could be any combination from this group depending on which way Wenger feels the wind is blowing Wednesday evening. It’s a tossup.
Match Prediction: Ok, it’s very easy to get carried away with chest thumping if you’re a Culé, especially considering last season’s dominance over the Gunners. When Barcelona’s starting XI hit their stride there’s pretty much nothing that can be done to stop them; give Xavi an inch of space in midfield, and he’ll find a way of getting the ball up to Messi, and we know how this story ends. From an impartial perspective (and I’m really, really trying to momentarily assume such a position) it’s hard to see anything other than a hard-fought victory for the Catalans at the Emirates. Someone will have to talk Dani Alves into staying put in the back as much as he’s able to (which usually isn’t very much), and Busquets will have to hang back to provide cover for when Alves/Maxwell/Piqué join in on the attack. The biggest threat to the Blaugrana is Arsenal’s speed on the counter attack, but as we saw last season, if you don’t give your opponent possession then they can’t very well attack, can they. And even if the Gunners manage a few shots on goal, Valdés has been in fine form as of late. 1-3 to FC Barcelona.