Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't Get Your Hopes Up

Barca preview? I have little option but to echo much of what I said last season.

Barcelona are better in every aspect. Better with the ball, better without. More skilful, more organised, more dynamic, more tactically adept. They have a more experienced goalkeeper and a better defence. They are better at creating and taking chances.

They have the best player in the world. Backed up by the best passer.

This is the best Barcelona team of all time. Some suggest, without even waiting for the benefit of hindsight, that they are the greatest club side ever. Arsenal? This Arsenal side isn't even close to Wenger's best. And Wenger's best would have struggled against this Barca team.

Ok, they have weaknesses. But are Arsenal equipped to exploit them?

Everyone knows they are the team to beat. But Arsenal see them as the team to be. That is why I see little hope. The 'Barcelona lite' accusation may seem a little trite but there is a definite ring of truth to it. Arsenal at their best are Oasis to Barca's Beatles.

Wenger likes to talk up the team's growing maturity but such talk rings hollow when they are finding new, sick ways to enter the record books. A team that throws away a four goal lead against a distinctly average opponent like Newcastle does not deserve to be seen a serious challenge to Barca.

Arsenal have only one way to play. They will not suddenly devise some tactical masterplan. They will try to play the way they always try to play. You could say, quite simply, that Barca play the same way, much better, and that's why they'll win. But it's not quite that simple. Barca don't just have more talented players, but they will work harder to stop Arsenal playing than vice versa. Their high-energy pressing is surely a big reason why their ostensibly vulnerable defence is never quite shown up as you'd expect it might be. A great irony is that, as I recall, Graeme Souness followed up Liverpool's tonking of Real Madrid a few season's back with the assertion that continental teams cannot match Premiership tempo. At the Emirates last year, Arsenal were so defused by Barca's ferocious early pressing that they literally couldn't get out of their own half, and could have been four or five down inside twenty minutes.

Are Arsenal in better shape than they were for last season's quarter final? Probably. Last season, Van Persie was not banging goals in as he is now, not even fit in fact. In the course of last year's tie, Arsenal were decimated by injury and suspension. Gallas limped out of the first leg early, leaving Song to partner Vermaelen, and that uncertain marriage helped yield two goals for Ibrahimovic. The defence now has a new look to it. Djourou and Koscielny look solid together, though, needless to say, they haven't faced anything like this test.

Not to downgrade Messi's second leg magic, but that game saw Arsenal shorn of Song, Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas and Van Persie. Such depletion seems unlikely this time, and so the Gunners ought to give a better account of themselves. Nasri should be back in time to play a part in the second leg, too.

Sagna suspended. The notoriously headless Eboue waits in the wings. Sagna's consistency is at odds with the unpredictability of the team in general, and his understudy in particular. Nasri's flashes of brilliance have stolen the plaudits, but Sagna may be Arsenal's player of the season so far.

Walcott's progress is a cause for cautious optimism. Despite the rough edges of his game, he turned out to be Arsenal's most potent weapon against Barca last season. He has developed enough for fans to expect a more substantial contribution this time. Barca like to push high up the pitch and there ought to be space for Walcott to speed into. If someone can release him.

Fabregas has had a relatively disappointing season. He remains by a distance Arsenal's best player. Last season's first leg saw the captain playing too close to Bendtner, unable to exert any influence in a midfield that Barcelona absolutely dominated. It was clear that he was not fully fit. When Arsenal get the ball, which may not be as often as they are used to, it might pay to be a little more direct, to try and release Walcott early.

Of course, it might turn out that the visitors are better prepared for Walcott's pace this time. And he may be hindered somewhat by the absence of the rock-solid Sagna on the same flank.

Overall, neutrals may be tempted to wheel out the term "mouthwatering" for a match that will pit Fabregas and Wilshere against Xavi and Iniesta, Van Persie against Messi, and so on. The truth is, Barca would have more reason to be worried if Arsenal were able to steal Mascherano for the night. Arsenal don't have the bite or the bloodymindedness of the teams that have troubled Barca in recent times. Barca know that Arsenal will try to play and they will be anticipating an enjoyable night.

No comments: