Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Match Preview: Arsenal vs Barcelona

Arsenal and Barcelona meet again in the Champions League tonight in what has been undoubtedly billed as the tie of the last-16 round.

At times the repetition of fixtures in the Champions League can lead to boredom; anyone who sat through 10 meetings in five seasons between Liverpool and Chelsea will testify to that.

But this tie is different. It has the magic, the style, the glamour and most importantly justified hype and expectation. There is a reason why, despite now having met three times in six seasons, the anticipation of the next screening of Arselona is greater than the last. It never disappoints.

In 2006 Barcelona edged the final in Paris 2-1, just, despite playing against the 10 men of an inexperienced Arsenal side for over 70 minutes.

Last year’s ties saw the banner raised another level. A scintillating 2-2 draw at the Emirates saw Barca at their best for 45 minutes before a dogged Arsenal fight back in the final quarter brought them back on level terms.

An injury savaged Gunners side then took the lead in the Nou Camp before a certain 5ft 7in figure of genius took over the tie with four goals without reply.

So, what can we expect this time round? Well, last season’s ties offer a number of interesting points of analysis.

1. The first 20 minutes

As strange as it may seem given that of the nine goals scored in the tie only two came in the first 20 minutes of both legs (one apiece in the opening stages at the Nou Camp), the opening quarter on both occasions last year were the key to the tie.

At the Emirates, Barcelona tore into their opponents in a manner rarely ever seen in any match, let alone in a Champions League quarter-final. The Catalans monopolised possession, attacked down the wings with blistering pace and won the ball back instantly with a frightening intensity of pressure on the opponent in possession. It was one of the finest opening passages to a game I’ve ever seen.

In the end Barca didn’t even get on the scoreboard with their dominance in that period. But that didn’t matter as much as the feeling of confidence and superiority it gave them. A feeling that became much more important in the second-leg when remarkably Nicklas Bendtner put Arsenal ahead 3-2 on aggregate.

Moments later Arsenal broke again, had Abou Diaby played the right pass into Theo Walcott rather than looking for Bendtner that tie and this analysis may have looked very different. As it was Messi battered Barca back on level terms a minute later and that sense of confidence and superiority soothed back into the Spanish Champions. This time they made it count.

The key for Arsenal this time is not to let Barca get into their rhythm, not to let themselves be so overawed. If the home side can get through the opening 20 on level terms, both on the scoreline and in the pattern of play, some of that inferiority complex will wear away and the confident free-flowing Arsenal we know may come to the fore.

2. The Walcott Factor

So who do you think will be the key player in the tie? Xavi or Fabregas? Vila or Van Persie? Messi or Nasri? The answer is it could be any one of them but the one who will be the focus of both side’s game plan is possibly a surprising one, Theo Walcott.

I did have a whole spiel prepared on why Walcott is the dangerman but then Leo Messi said this and he knows a thing or two more about this stuff than me:

“I can only speak from experience but Walcott was one of the most dangerous players I have ever played against.

“Barcelona players are not scared easily but I can tell you that when we played Arsenal last season Walcott truly worried us.”

So why does the man who couldn’t make England’s 23-man World Cup squad worry Barca so? Well it’s quite simple; Barca’s pressing game is based on defending from the front. When you do that the midfield must step forward to prevent the easy pass from the opposition defence into midfield and similarly the defensive line must also step forward to ensure there is no easy space for the opponents to play in. The result? A very high, sometime ludicrously high, defensive line that can at times be got at. Witness this against Inter last year and this against Espanyol this (at 6.30).

Walcott’s pace is made to expose this line and he did so for two of Arsenal’s goals last year.

Added to this problem with Carlos Puyol out injured, Eric Abidal will have to play at centre-back and Maxwell at left-back. The Brazilian full-back is excellent on the ball and usually suits Barca’s style but against a flying winger he can be exposed. Again, as Walcott did to him last year.

Pep Guardiola has two obvious solutions to this problem. One, ease off the intensive pressing game and play a deeper defensive line. This would be to go against all that Guardiola has preached since he became manager two and a half years ago and seems highly improbable at best.

The other, more reasonable, solution is to drop Sergio Busquets deeper as Guardiola has done on a number of occasions this year. This allows Busquets to act as an auxiliary third centre-back and consequently would allow Abidal to shift a little further left to cover any space in behind Maxwell that Walcott will look to exploit.

For Arsenal the best way to spring Walcott may be by playing more direct than normal with long diagonals in behind the Barca defence. This may be best achieved by Robin Van Persie operating to the left of centre as the main striker, pulling the defence to one side before releasing the ball into the open space on the other flank.

3. Possession

This may seem obvious with two sides that like to hold the ball but if possession is normally nine tenths of the law then in this case it is probably 99 hundredths.

Last year Barca hustled Arsenal out of their normal game. This time round Arsenal must keep the ball when they get it. To this extent the introduction of Jack Wiltshere to the side over the past 12 months will be a big help. Having another player so comfortable on the ball close to Fabregas is vital if the Spaniard is to dictate play by playing passing triangles around the midfield.

The issue for the home side tomorrow will come in playing the ball out from the back. Last year they struggled with Thomas Vermaelen, William Gallas and Alex Song all playing at centre-back at different times throughout the two ties. This time round Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny are even less likely to provide a stable platform on which to build. They ain’t very good when they don’t have the ball either.

Verdict: Arsenal a bit too Barca like to give them the heave-ho. If someone is to eliminate the Spanish Champions it will be by building a fortress around the 18-yard box, a la Inter last season. The Gunners just don’t have that in their nature. Barca 5-2 on aggregate

Probable Line-ups

Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Clichy, Djourou, Koscielny, Eboue; Song, Fabregas, Wiltshere; Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Maxwell, Abidal, Pique, Alves; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro

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