CL Preview: Arsenal – Barça, Wednesday 2:45pm FSC, Fox Soccer en Español
Before you read this, read this, an interview I did with Just Football.
After all the hype, all the vituperation, all the awesome iReports, the hand-wringing over injuries (Iniesta out, Cesc doubtful, I hurt my hamstring on Saturday as well), and the various opinion pieces here, it’s time for the real preview. I hope you can survive an extra 24 hours with only Frenchies surrendering to each other and Bayern attempting to deprive ManU of a third consecutive finals to get us through these moments and to our beloved. [ed note: I’m writing this while watching the second of those two matches and listening to Rufus Wainwright, so apologies if this is an absurd preview–actually, no I don’t apologize, it’s Arsenal Week!]
It’s London for us, with its torture-chamber towers and falling bridges, nice metro system, and, of course, it’s rich history of football. There are something like 84,234 first division teams in London, but fortunately we only have to play against one of them at a time. And, really, if we’re to play any team from London, I would like it to be Arsenal. I like their style and I think matches against them are generally really good or at least have the potential to be so.
Typically I do a long-winded historical introduction to the city, but if you don’t know about Jack the Ripper, Buckingham Palace, and Oliver Cromwell, well, I’ve provided a bunch of Wikipedia links to get you started; not that any of that is particularly encyclopedic or well-rounded, but it’s a start. Instead of general English or British history, I’ll start off with a short primer on Arsenal.
Founded in 1886 as Dial Square by workers at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, renamed Royal Arsenal, then renamed Woolwhich Arsenal when they became a professional squad in 1891, and finally renamed to Arsenal FC in 1913 when they left Woolwich for the neighborhood of Highbury. That’s when they built Arsenal Stadium, better known as Highbury, which was the club’s home until 2006 when they moved to their current home, Emirates Stadium. The team has done well in English competition, winning 13 titles, most recently in 2003-04 when they went undefeated and garnered 90 points. They’ve also won the FA Cup 10 times, most recently in 2005 when they beat Man United on penalties. The team has never won a Champions League title, but they do have a European Cup Winner’s Cup to their name: 1994’s 1-0 victory over Parma in Copenhagen.
The Emirates is a 60,355 seat stadium with a Desso Grassmaster surface (the same surface used in the Bernabeu), which means it should have a smooth surface for slick playing. The field is supposedly larger than that of the Camp Nou’s (116×76 meters as opposed to 112×72 meters, according to Wikipedia) and if that’s the case, that bodes well for us. Incidentally, the first goal scored by an Arsenal player in the Emirates was in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial and it was, naturally enough, scored by Thierry Henry.
So here we are, looking at a good team currently sitting in third in the EPL whose only questions are injuries. They’ve got a style they won’t betray and they’ve got the skills to work the ball through our pressure defense; that means this will be at tough match. I’ve already profiled their star attackers, so there’s no need to do that again, but several commenters have pointed out that perhaps we should be more worried about Abou Diaby than we are about some of the out-and-out attackers Arsenal will field.
My own opinion of Diaby is that he’s a serious work-in-progress and by no means capable of dealing with Barça’s midfield for 90 minutes. He’s an attacker more than a defender and that could be his undoing if he’s continually stuck in a “negative” position by Barça’s typical ball possession, which I do expect. It would be very surprising to me to see him have an excellent game when matched up against the likes of Xavi, Keita, or Yaya in the attacking third. Not only that, but he’s apparently carrying a knock that could keep him out.
Arsenal’s not-all-that-good wing backs (Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna–who are decent, but really, not all that good) will need a lot of cover whenever our wingers take them wide. If we start Henry, that will be often, if we start Pedro, it will be constant and unceasing. Messi’s positioning will be interesting as wel. I’m not sure if Guardiola thinks it’s better to put the little guy into the middle as a false 9, into the very middle as a true 10, or out wide as, um, a Messi–or should I say as a 7 a la Garrincha? Wherever he plays, you know he’ll only be there for a few seconds before moving on to a different spot. That is, after all, the nature of the beast that is Barcelona.
So what of us? Our squad: Valdes, Pinto, Marquez, Puyol, Piqué, Milito, Sergio Busquets, Touré, Xavi, Keita, Alves, Abidal, Maxwell, Pedro, Bojan, Ibrahimovic, Messi, Jonathan dos Santos, Henry, Jeffren.
Obviously a huge inclusion is Abidal and a huge exclusion is Iniesta. Pique’s inclusion is also a massive boost if he really is able to put in 90 minutes. I’d rather see him up against Bendtner and Vermaelen on set pieces than Milito, but The Great Hatchet of Bernal has proven himself a worthy member of the squad so I won’t be too worried if he partners Puyol. The only thing I would worry about is fatigue for those two CBs because they’ve played quite a few matches in a row now, especially Puyol. If Abidal is fully fit, I want to see him start simply because of that same fatigue factor. I think Maxwell is running out of gas after some 500 matches in a row.
Who starts in our midfield? I think we should go with Busi-Yaya-Xavi, but because that lineup has never started together (not that I can recall, anyway), I’m thinking we’ll see Busi-Keita-Xavi. Guardiola is a master of the crazy, though, so hopefully we will see the Beast-Beast-Maestro combo in the middle (that’s akin to a Mortal Kombat move of Forward-Forward-A, perhaps). Either way, the idea will be to control and dominate, to find the gaps and play triangles through them.
So, then, finally, does Henry play? I think so. He hasn’t played for a bit, but I think that he’ll be our best option against serious opposition. I like Pedro’s contributions, of course, but Henry provides veteran leadership and defensive cover that Pedro doesn’t and doesn’t often, respectively, provide. So I think we’ll see Henry-Ibra-Messi up front.
Predicted Lineup: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, Busi, Keita, Xavi, Henry, Ibra, Messi.
I would like to see Pique and Abidal out there along with The Yaya, but I’m thinking we won’t see them until the return leg simply because that makes the most sense. It’s not a do-or-die moment, though it’s getting towards that kind of thing. I’d rather see us draw with Arsenal away, then beat them at home, and beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on April 10.
Official Prediction: 2-2. I think it’ll be open and we’ll let in two stupid goals. But Messi will show everyone why it is that he’s, well, Messi. It’s the start to the true business end of the season and thus the time when Guardiola injects everyone with Red Bull (and Dani Alves with nothing), so our 2-2 will be what we begin to build off of and run on for the rest of the season. Thus the title of this here post.
TV: In the US, this match will be on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports Español.
Time: 7:45pm Local/London time, 2:45pm EST/New York time, check your local time here.
More tomorrow leading up to kickoff.