Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Match Preview: Barcelona vs Arsenal
As the din around the Emirates cooled 20 nights ago, in the tunnel one man wasn’t getting carried away. Despite having just beaten his boyhood heroes and teammates for the first time in three attempts, Cesc Fabregas dispelled the euphoria by refusing to even describe the 2-1 victory as a ‘favourable result’.
He could be forgiven for not being overjoyed, because for all the tension and drama of Arsenal’s two late goals that night, the game had followed a remarkably similar pattern to the meeting between the two sides at the Emirates last season. Barcelona dominating possession and the flow of the game for an hour before a stirring two-goal comeback from the hosts in the final 30 minutes.
Echoes of that quarter-final from a year ago are also present now as the sides prepare for the decisive encounter at the Camp Nou. From the team that had started in the 2-2 draw in the first-leg last season Arsenal had lost William Gallas, Alex Song, Andrei Arshavin and Fabregas himself through injury by the time they lined up in the Catalan capital two weeks later.
In the intervening three weeks this time round the Gunners have lost Theo Walcott and Song while Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere face last-minute races to be fit.
This Arsenal side has also lost some of its mojo from that from that famous evening three weeks ago. The confident, vibrant young side that overcame the La Liga Champions has had its swagger dented by a humiliating last-minute defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final and draws away to Leyton Orient and at home to Sunderland.
Yet all is not lost for Arsene Wenger’s men as they head back to the Nou Camp this evening. Not only are Fabregas and Van Persie expected to make an appearance when reports earlier in the week suggested they wouldn’t, but the Barcelona juggernaut of the past three seasons has slowed ever so slightly in recent weeks.
Defeat in London had followed a 1-1 draw in Gijon (the first time Barcelona had dropped any points away from home all season) and preceded an extremely nervy 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou. And even though they have now regained their seven point advantage at the top of La Liga - thanks to Real Madrid’s slip up at Deportivo La Coruna last weekend - Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Real Zaragoza means that the Champions League favourites have now only scored once in four of their last five matches.
Pep Guardiola also faces selection problems similar to those encountered in this tie last year with both first choice centre-backs, Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, unavailable. Eric Abidal, who has filled in impressively at centre-back for much of the season, is expected to be partnered by Sergio Busquets in their place.
Ex-Liverpol man Javier Mascherano is also expected to start, stepping into Busquets’ usual role in front of the back four. However, it is what lies ahead of Mascherano that will most worry Wenger. In particular, another Argentine who took the tie away from Arsenal last season.
Lionel Messi’s four goals and all round performance in his side’s 4-1 victory in the second-leg last season was described by many as one of the best individual performances European football has ever seen. Implausibly the 5ft 7in genius has been just as good this season with already 40 goals in all competitions.
And it is not just Messi’s goalscoring threat that the Arsenal rearguard will have to be wary of. As was demonstrated in the opening goal at the Emirates, David Villa has brought even more firepower to an already hardly shot shy squad with a large percentage of the Asturian’s 21 goals this term coming from Messi assists.
The most pressing issue for Wenger is how, in the absence of Song, to combat Messi’s movement – the Argentine will continually drop deep between the Arsenal defence and midfield to look for the ball and create space for Villa cutting in from the left and the often overlooked Pedro (who himself has 20 goals this season) from the right.
The key for Arsenal in attack will be how well they keep possession when they win it back and to exploit the space in behind Barca’s rampaging full backs – as they did to good effect in the first 20 minutes of last year’s tie at the Nou Camp.
On the bright side for Wenger if Fabregas and Wilshere make it this will provide a much more technically gifted base for the visitors to build from. In recent games the young English midfielder has missed the influence of his captain alongside him to always provide an easy pass and keep the ball moving. And as he showed in the first leg the 19-year-old will not be phased by playing in close quarters to such esteemed opposition.
However, the injury to Walcott could prove a vital blow to Arsenal’s chances. The winger with the speed of Usain Bolt often doesn’t have the footballing intelligence to make the most of his pace but he is the one man who genuinely worries Barcelona.
Without Walcott’s pace Wenger may be tempted to go with Marouane Chamakh in the lone striker role. The Moroccan’s goalscoring touch has deserted him in recent months but he is better suited than Nicklas Bendtner and Van Persie at holding the ball up and running in behind.
Whatever the outcome another footballing feast awaits. As Wenger has been quick to point out himself, Arsenal’s best form of defence will be attack. It seems highly unlikely that they will see the 90 minutes out without conceding. Even the lauded defensive performance of Inter Milan at the Nou Camp in last season’s semi-final saw them lose 1-0.
However, for all that it is taken for granted that Barca’s MVP partnership will strike at least once, they must be wary of Arsenal on the break. Unlike opponents in recent weeks, particularly against Real Zaragoza on Saturday, the visitors this evening will break in numbers and with purpose. If Arsenal will have to work to stop a repeat of Barcelona’s opener three weeks ago, Barcelona will have to be just as wary to prevent a copycat of the gunners winner.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes, Maxwell, Abidal, Busquets, Alves; Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Clichy, Djourou, Koscielny, Sagna; Wilshere, Diaby; Arshavin, Fabregas, Nasri; Chamakh