And it only gets darker before the dawn…If there is one.
Arsenal travel to the Camp Nou trailing the defending champions 2-nil after the first leg. Reversing the scoreline would send the match to extra time. Three Arsenal goals would be needed to win over 90 minutes, in which case we wouldn’t even need a clean sheet. It is possible–mathematically–for Arsenal to advance tonight in Barcelona.
Is it possible on the football pitch? I seriously doubt it, but, as Gooners know, when Arsenal play, anything is possible. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been a good thing as of late.
What can we say about the opposition beyond what we saw three weeks ago? I guess they’ll have Arda Turan back from suspension even if Gerard Pique has to serve one. They’ve given up a couple of goals in intervening games, one each at Rayo Vallecano and one on their home pitch vs Sevilla. Unfortunately they’ve also scored 17 goals themselves. Gulp.
I thought we played quite well in the first leg and we actually had chances to go ahead through Aaron Ramsey and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain. Rambo’s shot was scuffed but the Ox missed a real sitter in Barca’s penalty box. Later the Ox damaged knee ligaments chasing a heavy touch on the counter. Barca also failed to take their chances in the first half and had a couple saved by Petr Cech.
In the second period Barcelona were more clinical. Absorbing our pressure, they always looked dangerous on the counter, and, finally, in the 71st minute, they made us pay, Leo Messi finishing a fine move out of our half. They doubled the lead in the 83rd when Per Mertesacker cushioned down a high ball to Mathieu Flamini but Messi snuck in ahead of the Corsican who kicked only leg. The Argentinian beat Cech from the penalty spot.
Overall, it wasn’t our worst match and only loss of focus in critical moments let us down. That’s what football is all about, however, and now it’s a mountain to climb.
Additionally, since the match, we’ve faltered even more. League losses at Manchester United and at home vs Swansea (and a late draw at Tottenham) now see us 11 points off league leaders Leicester City, albeit with a game in hand. We have that extra game because we won a replay in the FA cup at Hull City only to lose in the next round at home vs Watford in our most recent outing. In addition to the Ox, we’ve also lost Ramsey and Cech to injury. Laurent Koscielny missed four matches after that first leg but should be available tonight.
Between the injuries and the results it all makes for another spiraling descent into end-of-season Arsenal crisis, made worse by the fact that there are none of the usual mechanisms for “resolving” such troubles at our club–i.e., firing the manager. Not a peep has been uttered at ownership or board level and Arsene Wenger remains defiant amid fan protests, banners demanding (or asking politely for) his ouster and what he describes as farcical drama surrounding each match. As such, needing to win by 2 clear goals against a team that hasn’t lost since October should be run-of-the-mill pressure for the embattled manager. In addition, there’s the small matter of a lunchtime kickoff at Everton in league play coming on Saturday. Should he be thinking about that one?
Probably not, especially as much of Wenger’s stewardship of the club has been focused on Europe. Revenues from the new stadium, now in its tenth season of use, have allowed us to finish consistently in the Champions League places. If only we could truly compete in the tournament. We made heroic efforts this season to get out of our group but this would be six years in a row leaving the tournament in the first elimination round. I share Wenger’s view that we have to give it a go and use our best personnel. Our depleted team–even if they can’t win against Barcelona–could probably use the pitch time learning how to play with one another ahead of our final nine league matches.
Who starts? The team, I think, just about picks itself except perhaps up front where there’s some discussion about tactical choices and form players. It should help using our Spanish fullbacks, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal, and having Laurent Koscielny available again. Danny Welbeck was our most recent scorer (very late vs Watford) and he looked effective starting at Spurs while both Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott sat. Those two both scored a brace in the only win (at Hull City) we’ve had in our past seven matches, however. I can’t see Wenger sitting either Alexis Sanchez nor Mesut Ozil, although some might argue that we should keep Ozil (and Bellerin) back in London so that Barcelona recruiters can’t have access to them. Could Joel Campbell also play? In midfield, where the injuries probably cut the deepest, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin likely start unless Wenger wants to rest one or the other in favor of Flamini or Calum Chambers.
Here’s my best guess:
Subs: Macey, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Iwobi, Campbell, Giroud
Beyond blind hope and the idea that Barca might play with an eye to preserving their lead, I cannot see a lot on offer tonight. Getting out with no new injuries and some improved combination play, especially by guys like Eleneny and Coquelin (working with Alexis and Ozil and the fullbacks) against Barca’s highly skilled and very quick players would be my top priorities. In fact, I’d prioritize the performance above the result given that we’ll need another one so soon again up at Everton. My view, however, is just that. What do others say?
This team could use a lift and going to one of the great venues and playing one of the great teams certainly offers just such an opportunity.
Go on then…