2011 UEFA Champions League: Barcelona and Arsenal Face Camp Nou Showdown
Traveling for a second leg at Camp Nou with a one-goal lead, many teams would be tempted to, in the famous words of Jose Mourinho, “park the bus” and play for a draw.
The good news for Barcelona, and neutral observers everywhere, is that Arsenal are pretty much incapable of taking such a negative approach.
That’s not to say that the visitors are going to naively play into Barca’s hands by attacking all game; Arsene Wenger is one of the smartest tacticians in world football and will set his team out accordingly.
What it does mean, is that Arsenal are unlikely to just sit 10 men behind the ball and cede possession to the home side in the way that many teams do when they visit Europe’s best side.
That may well be good news for Barca, with Saturday’s narrow 1-0 victory at home to Zaragoza indicating that even the most gifted attack in world football can occasionally be stifled by a well-organised defence.
On the flip side, the old adage about ‘attack being the best form of defence’ could well apply here, with Arsenal’s counter-attacking play in the last half hour at the Emirates completely turning the tie on its head.
It’s almost inevitable that people will cast their minds back to the similar scenario Arsenal faced in travelling to Barcelona last year; playing the second leg of the quarter-final tie after a 2-2 home draw, Arsenal went 1-0 up early on, but eventually ended up losing 4-1 on the night thanks to a four-goal haul from the stunning Lionel Messi.
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Few expect Barca to win so comfortably tonight, although there are several parallels to that night, particularly in relation to the central defenders who will be missing.
Last season’s tie saw Barcelona take to the field without both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, while Arsenal were without William Gallas.
This time around, Puyol and Pique are missing through injury and suspension, respectively, and while Gallas will be playing in a Champions league tie this week, it will be for North London rivals Tottenham rather than Arsenal.
The Gunners are also without long-term injury absentee Thomas Vermaelen, meaning Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou will continue to deputise.
Koscielny will be looking to recapture the form he showed in the first leg and put in a quality performance to help banish the memories of his calamitous error that gifted Birmingham forward Obafemi Martins the winning goal in last Sunday’s Carling Cup final.
The other player involved in the mix-up, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, will also be under pressure to prove himself as a big game player, with games coming no bigger than Champions League nights at Camp Nou.
For the home side, it is likely to be Eric Abidal marshaling the defence alongside young midfielder Sergio Busquets, who will drop back and play as a makeshift centre back for the night.
Who will go through tonight?
While the situation is far from ideal, Abidal has performed very well in the centre of defence on a number of occasions this season.
Busquets has performed this role at least a couple of times in recent weeks, so neither player is completely out of his comfort zone.
One interesting side note is that Busquets' positional switch will likely see former Liverpool player Javier Mascherano make a rare start in midfield.
The big difference to last year is the attacking riches at the teams’ disposal, particularly Arsenal.
Last year, the Gunners were missing both Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, and while both players were previously viewed as highly doubtful for this game, it now appears that the two are fit to start, which is a huge boost to the Gunners chances of qualifying.
Whether they are both 100 percent remains to be seen, but given that Van Persie was given no chance of playing only days ago, his return is fantastic news for Arsenal.
The other major difference to the game last year is that Arsenal now have other players who can make a huge difference in midfield, with the emergence of Jack Wilshere and sustained brilliance of Samir Nasri meaning Arsenal have a quartet of talent who can cause real damage to Barca’s seemingly vulnerable backline.
One player who is definitely out, however, is fellow midfielder Alex Song, although Song’s poor performance in the first leg, coupled with the return of Abou Diaby, means that the loss is unlikely to be overly detrimental to the visitors.
For Barca, it’s a list of familiar faces who will be relied upon to overturn the one-goal deficit and secure victory.
Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta will be supplying the ammunition, and it is down to the forward trio of Messi, Pedro and David Villa, scorers of an astonishing 57 goals in Barca’s 27 league games so far this season, who will be expected to put the ball in the back of the net.
The home side will also look to their fullbacks to provide attacking impetus, with Dani Alves marauding down their right, and on the opposite side, fellow Brazilian Adriano likely to be given a start ahead of Maxwell.
Adriano has performed impressively at times this season, and will look to exploit the attacking opportunities afforded to him, particularly with the absence of Arsenal’s continually unfortunate Theo Walcott, who had been playing some of the best football of his career before his latest injury setback.
So, with missing defenders, returning attackers, Barca’s need to score at least once, Arsenal’s swift counter attacking in search of a vital away goal, it looks like we should be set for a real thriller tonight.
For fans of the two sides, it is likely to be a night of fingernail-biting tension. For fans of beautiful football, it is likely to be a night they can sit back and enjoy, as one thing’s for sure; 0-0 seems an impossibility.
Likely Starting XIs
Barcelona: Valdes Alves-Busquets-Abidal-Adriano Mascherano-Xavi-Iniesta Pedro-Messi-Villa
Arsenal: Szczesny Sagna-Djourou-Koscielny-Clichy Wilshere-Diaby-Fabregas Nasri-Van Persie-Bendtner
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