Barcelona-Arsenal: Will Arsenal Cause the Upset of the Decade?
Arsenal may not be the favorites to win this tie after a whirlwind performance by Barcelona in the first leg at Emirates, but still Wenger is optimistic, even without some of his key players (read it as all the key players).
First leg at the Emirates saw a dramatic comeback by Arsenal in the final 20 minutes to secure a surprising draw courtesy of Theo Walcott and Manuel Almunia (probably the only time I felt Almunia deserved praise—soon my opinion changed in the second half, but still he deserves it).
Injuries are playing spoilsports and both teams are facing a crisis situation.
Ibrahimovic's absence will be a huge boost for Arsenal and key players Iniesta and Yaya Toure are also doubtful. Moreover, Gerrard Pique and Carles Puyol are suspended.
Meanwhile, Arsenal lost their captain Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas, and Andrei Arshavin to injury just after the first leg.
Last weekend, Wolves were "paid by Barcelona" to inflict more injuries, and now it's certain that they've succeeded in eliminating Alex Song from this fixture.
But, Wolves managed to do more some damage. Wolves captain Henry's (not Thierry) strong challenge has left Tomas Rosicky with a 50-50 chance to be fit for this game.
Later, Henry claimed that his tackle was "near perfect" and wasn't even a bookable offense. He accused Arsenal players and Wenger for forcing the referee to give him a straight red. We all know that Wenger pulled the red card out from the referee's pocket and made the work easier by sending off Henry instead of the referee.
Alex Song's injury is a big setback for Wenger. Although this game is more about attack than defense, Song's presence could have made a big difference considering the fact that his replacement is an outdated, slow defender.
Arsenal's defense is too fragile and it wouldn't take a wizard to predict that almost any team can score against this defense. Arsenal, though, must tighten the screws at the back and shouldn't concede too many goals early. They're certain to get clear-cut chances against Barcelona at some point in time and the Gunners must pounce on those opportunities.
The most vulnerable player in the Arsenal defense is Sol Campbell. It would be better for Arsenal if they can force Barcelona out wide on the wings because players like Messi and Bojan can easily zip past this outdated "ex-England" defender.
Thomas Vermaelen does add some Belgian steel to the fragile defense, but still, one man can't stop the hurricane that Barcelona are set to unleash.
Gael Clichy looks sharp and his presence makes it difficult for Dani Alves. So, attacks will obviously develop more from right. Bacary Sagna's dip in form will not help either. It may be better to start with an in-form Eboue rather than a struggling Sagna.
Finally, saves made by Almunia should only be considered as a plus. He's not expected to make too many match-winning saves, and whatever he does for the team is a bonus considering his poor record this season in front of the post.
Arsenal's midfield isn't the best. You can't expect too many things from players like Denilson. He's far too inconsistent and his goofy mistakes result in counterattacks and easy goal-scoring chances, as what has been observed so far this season.
However, this is a European tie and our opponents are Barcelona. So, Denilson can move comfortably without being worried about "life-threatening" challenges (guess Shawcross is not reading and Martin Taylor is busy helping Watford to gain promotion so as to continue his leg breaking sagas).
The onus will be on Samir Nasri to orchestrate the play. This is testing time and the performance of the team will mostly depend on his quick distribution and clever passes.
Abou Diaby may not get the space to run freely, so he should concentrate more on winning the ball back and feeding it to Nasri rather than looking for the impossible dribbles in a congested midfield. Barcelona presses high up the pitch and long balls might be a better idea to unsettle their pressing game.
Arsenal's front line is depleted with so many injuries, which will be a big concern.
Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner's good form is a positive sign and he must lead the line like any other top striker does, scoring from the half chances in a game where goal scoring chances will be very few.
Theo Walcott has impressed one and all with a short but effective cameo appearance against Barcelona in the first leg (now inevitably Real Madrid will look to sign him in the summer to destroy Barcelona in the domestic derby matches).
Walcott may start this game and the only drawback will be his lack of final balls. He must rise to the occasion and raise his crossing standards.
Rosicky might start on the left wing but he's 50-50, so that's a big concern considering the number of injuries Arsenal have.
Another option is Eduardo, who at last managed to impress one person with his performance last week—none other than Mick McCarthy. He doesn't deserve a place in the starting 11 though.
There's nothing much left on the bench. You can't expect miracles from the likes of Fran Merida and Craig Eastmond. So, the ones on the pitch must deliver from kick off.
Coming to the pitch, there's a lot of talks about the dimensions of Nou Camp and how that will aide Barcelona's cause. However, it must be noted that Arsenal have the largest pitch in the Premier League and both the Emirates and Nou Camp have almost similar dimensions. Nou Camp pitch looks larger because of the extra grass on the edges and that's deceiving the viewers.
On the other hand, Pep Guardiola feels that Almunia is the most important player for Arsenal after those string of saves in the first leg. He's not bothered about Walcott and feels the goalkeeper alone can take Arsenal through to the semifinals (so in the summer expect a bid of more than £100m from Barcelona for this "outstanding goalkeeper").
Barcelona's defense is weak much like Arsenal's. However, Abidal's return from injury will be a big boost. Maxwell struggled against Walcott, but Abidal is a wily full back and his crossing skills are remarkable, so expect a tough outing for Walcott against Abidal.
Barcelona's front man will be the "matured" striker Bojan Kirkic (surely Guardiola isn't happy with Thierry Henry's Arsenal-friendly play in the first leg). Bojan has pace and will obviously look to gain the better of Campbell ,but the pressure may get the better of him.
All-in-all, this is a mouth-watering encounter. Only one thing is sure: goals. I am predicting a 2-2 draw again, and 4-3 for Arsenal in the penalties with Almunia making an acrobatic save of Xavi's strike.
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