For all the angst and effort put forth in making it through the group stage, Arsenal had to hope for something a bit less daunting than drawing the defending champions in the first elimination round of this season’s Champions League. Ah well, so it goes. Barcelona. Again.
Playing in the final in Paris in May of 2006 was both thrilling and exceptionally frustrating. Going down to 10 men but also nicking a lead allowed belief to creep in. Thierry Henry had that chance to double it, but when he didn’t, what ensued seemed all too inevitable.
With this year’s draw, Arsenal have now hit the Catalans in the eliminations for the third time and a similar sense of fate hovers over the proceedings.
In 2010 it was a quarterfinal match-up and Arsenal eked out a late 2-2 draw in our home stadium through a Cesc Fabregas penalty. In the away leg we actually got the lead through Nicklas Bendtner before Lionel Messi scored four goals for Barca to prevail with an aggregate score of 6-3.
The following season we met in this round and Arsenal won the home leg in memorable fashion. Robin Van Persie scored a tight angled equalizer before Andrey Arshavin completed a fantastic counterattacking move to set the stadium rocking. Unfortunately, in the away leg, after Abou Diaby scored, RVP got sent off, and, despite another opportunity for Bendtner to stake us to a lead–one v one with the onrushing keeper–we were unable to overcome the man advantage and eventually succumbed by a scoreline of 3-1, 4-3 on aggregate.
That was five years ago and many of the faces have changed. Arsenal, arguably, are better prepared with big money purchases like Mesut Ozil and Barcelona cast-off Alexis Sanchez in the fold. Petr Cech is the goalkeeper who kept Barca at bay in the semifinals in 2012, the year Chelsea won the tournament.
Unfortunately, Barca have also strengthened. Controversy surrounded the moves which secured both Neymar and Luis Suarez, but bans (for transfer impropriety and biting) have been served (by both the club and the toothy player) and the team seems to be peaking at the correct time. Last year they won the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and CL) and this season they are on pace to do so in even more dominant fashion. Currently they have an eight point advantage in La Liga and are in the finals of the Copa having won the semifinals by an aggregate scoreline of 8-1. They are heavy favorites, of course, to advance at Arsenal’s expense in this tournament.
So, no pressure for the home team…
Well, not exactly…
Nearly a decade may have passed since that final in Paris but it’s also coincided with Arsenal’s move into their bigger, more modern stadium, the venue which was supposed to allow us to compete-financially and on the pitch–with the European Giants. The global financial crisis set back Arsenal’s Highbury redevelopment scheme as did board members selling a majority of ownership shares to Stan Kroenke. Ownership by the American billionaire, a man not inclined to invest extra funds into any of his sporting properties, means our increased financial strength comes only through increased match day revenues.
While those funds have allowed us to buy cast-offs from freer spending clubs and enabled us to resist overtures from those same clubs by increasing players’ wages, they have naturally not made for the happiest of supporters. Nor have they leveled the playing field with the clubs willing to make big losses. Even now, the papers are reporting that Barcelona are trying to make contact with Ozil’s agents, much as they might have before buying Henry in 2007 and Fabregas in 2011. In the decade since the Paris final, Barca have won the CL and the Copa three times each and their league five times; our only trophies in the intervening years have been the pair of FA Cups won in the past two campaigns. We’re competing decently in both that cup as well as the Premier League this season but are playing with nowhere near the dominance Barca are demonstrating..
As such, some might argue that if they knock us out of the Champions league it could be for the best, so that we can keep our eyes well focused on the domestic front(s), notably our first chance at a league title in a dozen years.I humbly disagree and believe we should banish such thoughts about”silver linings.”
In fact we seem to have good depth in the squad even if results haven’t coincided with surmounting a winter injury crisis. Losing three starters–Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Alexis–at the end of November seemed portentous, but we got through the crowded festive period with only one defeat and no draws in all competitions, capped perhaps by a pair of 3-nil wins vs Dynamo Zagreb and at Olympiakos in our Champions League group to advance under great pressure. Since the middle of January, however, while we’ve only lost one match, we’ve drawn four and only won three. Perhaps with more players available we’re struggling a bit to find our best form and combinations. More games might allow more chances to iron out the wrinkles.
That includes the replay we now face due to our most recent result, a nil-nil at home in the FA Cup vs Hull City. A similar result vs Barca would be ideal given the away goals rule. Let’s go for it…
Or maybe we can go one (or more) better and nick some goals on the counterattack, much as we did against our most formidable opponent in the group stage, Bayern Munich. Surely the home match against the Bavarians must be seen as the blueprint for this one: cede possession, defend our goal and hope to take a chance–or two–as we did vs Bayern.
In my view, the team basically picks itself, especially given an injury to center back Gabriel Paulista. The Brazilian had started every match since Per Mertesacker’s red card vs Chelsea and many Gooners liked his superior closing pace. Arsene Wenger’s choice may be moot in that case but he may have a little thinking to do further forward. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, I think, will start on the right and Olivier Giroud as our #9, although Theo Walcott played in that role vs Bayern in the autumn. Those three (and the rest of the squad) have struggled for goals in the new year but the Ox broke a long drought at Bournemouth while Giroud and Walcott combined to score vs Leicester. Could Danny Welbeck get a run having proved the hero in the more recent league match? Possibly, but my hunch is that it would be from the subs bench. Here’s the eleven I think AW will start:
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Elneny, Walcott, Welbeck
This one has to be seen as the ultimate test as well as a fantastic opportunity. It’s a match that must be played with complete discipline but also a measure of freedom and no inhibition when the ball comes our way. Barcelona’s threats are so myriad I hate to even list them. I will say that we should beware too much focus on the trio of South American forwards (Neymar, Suarez and Messi) as midfielders like Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic tend to take advantage of too much focus on the others while their defenders also get forward like no other team’s. One area of potential weakness could be in their size at set pieces. If we can create the pressure to make them foul us or put balls behind for corners we might be able to take advantage. An imposing atmosphere and total commitment to the cause (but not stupidity and too many players too far forward) might help level the playing field, at times at least.
Do that and get a few fortunate bounces and I say, “Why Not?”
I’m sorry I cannot be more (objectively) optimistic. If the truth be told, football–much more than Arsenal, in fact–in the decade since we played the Paris final against the Catalans, has disappointed me on many levels. Money and cynicism, with top players and clubs finding new ways to explore venality, if not criminal levels of corruption, not to mention the hoarding of talent, mar what we would hope to be a superior spectacle on the pitch. (See, for example, Barcelona choosing an Emirate, Qatar, for a shirt sponsor over UNICEF…) Arsenal have built slowly over this period and, I believe, have held their own against the “progress” of English and Continental clubs willing to burn up billions of pounds (or Euros) and blur the edges of fair practice. The only place to prove that our way is the right way and that we belong at the top of the sport, however, is to do it on the pitch against such clubs.
Go on then…