There are a great many things you can learn from studying history – it is suicidal to attack Russia in the winter for example. The rapidly approaching Barcelona – Arsenal match presents the opportunity to reminisce about the not-so-distant history between the two teams and to get pumped up for the match. Who knows, we might even learn a thing or two along the way.
We start our stroll through history with the most remote of the three games, which is also the least informative of the three for our upcoming match. In fact, only six players who took the pitch in the 2006 Champions League Final still play for their respective club: Valdes, Puyol, Iniesta (sub), Almunia (sub), Eboue, and Fabregas. Xavi, van Persie, and Clichy were unused subs. There is also a certain Hleb who started the match, but he is less relevant to the upcoming match than Mubarak stepping down in Egypt. Although this match may not help us know what to expect in the upcoming match, it still holds some important timeless football lessons.
It was also an extremely exciting match. I’d even go so far as to say there hasn’t been a more exciting Champions League Final since that scintillating night in Paris. The match started at a fiery pace, and while Arsenal had the first chance through Henry both teams came out intent on attacking and had several chances in the first twenty minutes. Disaster struck for Arsenal in the 18th minute when Lehmann, their somewhat erratic keeper, got sent off for tripping Eto’o outside the box. Arsenal didn’t give up and to their credit they took the lead on a powerful header from Sol Campbell.
The second half saw the introduction of a young Iniesta for an injured Edmilson, and a continuation of the attacking intent from both teams. However, it was only with the introduction of Larsson that Barcelona was finally able to find the net. Iniesta was surveying the field from deep and picked out Larsson posting up in the box, who kept the ball moving to Eto’o with a beautiful half touch and Eto’o made no mistake. The second goal saw Larsson pick out Belleti (playing right back at the time) with a cross from the right before Belleti slotted the ball through Almunia’s legs to secure Barcelona’s second Champions League win.
The easiest lesson to take from this game is that anything can happen in a knockout match. Lehmann was the first person ever sent off in a Champions League Final, and that completely changed the game. We all know this but it is important to remember that Champions League knockout games often hinge on decisive moments in the game, and these moments can go either way. Two years ago the decisive moment was Iniesta’s phenomenal goal against Chelsea, while last year it was Bojan’s goal against Inter called back for a hand ball. No matter how well Barcelona is playing they still need to be wary of these matches as anything can happen.
The other important lesson from this match is the impact substitutes can make. Iniesta helped set up the first goal, Larsson assisted both goals, and Belleti scored the second goal; all three of them were substituted into the game. Larsson in particular changed the momentum of the game, and his performance remains a testament to the fact that having an experienced striker who could come off the bench may not be a bad idea. At the moment our bench looks very dependable, but at the same time I wonder who could come on and really change the momentum of the match. We will revisit this lesson again shortly…
Now we are going to jump through time a la Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, which takes us to the Quarterfinals of last season. In the first match in the Emirates Barcelona came out of the starting blocks like Usain Bolt on crack. They were so dominating, so precise, and so ruthless in the first twenty minutes I thought they were going to get bored and pillage the stadium. And yet they just couldn’t score. In fact it wasn’t until after half time that Ibrahimovic popped up to score his two goals. Interestingly, both goals came when the game was a bit more open and Ibrahimovic was able to take advantage of some suspect decision making from the Arsenal back line (and some perfect passes from Pique and Xavi). Arsene’s introduction of Walcott proved to be inspired, and is another perfect example of the impact substitutes can make. Walcott’s pace coupled with Barcelona’s fatigue unsettled Barcelona’s back line and he was crucially involved in salvaging the match for Arsenal – scoring their first and generally being a nuisance.
This match is the most comparable to our upcoming match, and so there are a lot of things to be learned. First, and most obvious, Barcelona must play the WHOLE match. Despite completely dominating for the first 20 minutes and leading 2-0 in the 60th minute, Barcelona didn’t win because they couldn’t finish the game. I hate to belabor this point, but this is also a match where Arsene obviously outclassed Pep with his substitutions. A final general lesson to be learned from this match is that in the last few years Barcelona hasn’t been winning away in the Champions League. Last season Barca drew in London and at Stuttgart, and in the 08-09 season they drew away to Lyon, Bayern, and Chelsea. While not winning in any of those matches, Barcelona did score in all of them. This is the key – even more than winning, it is essential to score goals away from home in the Champions League. This is especially true when playing the first game away from home as scoring puts pressure on teams to attack in the return leg, and this opens up the game for Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
It was eye-opening in this match that Walcott was able to destabilize the Barcelona back line solely with his pace. The easiest and most direct way to neutralize this in the upcoming game would be with pace of our own, in other words, Abidal (Maxwell was playing left back in this match). It is a bit worrying that with Puyol out it seems either Maxwell or Milito will start. Neither of them is particularly quick, and it will be important that the team doesn’t let whoever starts get isolated. While Arsenal is lauded in the English media for their ball retention this match showed they can be just as deadly with quick counterattacks. Dani Alves may have to play a more reserved role than normal to prevent them from exploiting the hole he leaves on the right side of the pitch – this is also where Nasri generally likes to create from. Finally, both goals scored were scored because the Arsenal defenders had been pulled out of position. Movement from the front line is going to be absolutely essential to break down the Arsenal back line, even though it is looking very different than last year. Djourou has been great for Arsenal lately, starting in every game in January and not letting a single goal past him. Barcelona will put his discipline to the test and ultimately I think that the Arsenal back line will show weakness in their positional discipline just like last season.It will be up to Barcelona to take advantage of that.
What is there to say about the second leg match from last year? Bendtner snuck in an early goal (which Walcott assisted) for Arsenal and while my heart sank Messi’s hardened. What transpired after was a display in virtuosity that won’t soon be forgotten. While the team played well, Messi was head and shoulders the best player on the pitch. Whether he was passing to himself off of Silvestre’s foot, starting a move with a fantastic pass and then sneaking in to finish it, delicately lobbing Almunia, or fighting his way to his last goal, he was unstoppable.
There really isn’t that much to take from this game other than when Messi is on he is unstoppable. Couple that with the fact that Arsenal was missing some key players and had to field the likes of Silvestre and there was really only one possible result from this match. Although there is a lot of luck involved in the Champions League, and matches can hinge on crucial moments, quality still shines through the fog the majority of the time.
The upcoming tie with Arsenal will be difficult, even more so due to the familiarity between the two teams. While the Arsenal players are chirping to the media about the lessons they learned from last year, you can be certain that Pep is preparing his squad with the knowledge he gained from last season’s tie. Hopefully the matches will be just as entertaining as they have been between the two teams in recent memory… and hopefully we will see Barcelona triumph over Arsenal again.