Last week I was doing a slot for Sirius Radio in the US, and I was asked ‘How do Arsenal stop Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar?’
If I knew the answer to that, I would be a very rich man because I would write a pamphlet and sell it to football managers in Spain and across Europe. Having made the gag elsewhere about using weapons, I guess the answer is hard work, 100% concentration, and a bit, or a lot, of luck.
Between them this season they have 91 goals and 43 assists. It’s genuinely frightening how good they are, and our chances of getting anything from tie will require us to keep them quieter than most teams have managed this season. That trio aside, this is a team that has scored 4 goals or more in a game 13 times this season. We’ve managed it just once.
They have goals galore, we’ve struggled to score far too often, and on that basis alone it’s going to be a tough task tonight. Thankfully, there’s more to football than just that, but we have to hope the intangibles and the variables are very much on our side. We know what Barcelona can do, and probably how they do it, but stopping them is much easier said than done.
It’s not impossible though. They’ve had their occasional blips this season, and three times they’ve let 4 goals in. Granted, that was much earlier in the season, before they got themselves motoring the way they are now, but it might just provide a small glimmer of hope that if we can get at them the right way, there are goals in this for us.
In terms of his team, Arsene Wenger has a few decisions to make. Up front I’m assuming he’s going to go for Olivier Giroud. Although he started Theo Walcott against Bayern Munich back in October to give us pace on the counter-attack, that also came at a time when we have a midfield more capable of relieving some pressure. The absence of Santi Cazorla means that we might be inclined to bypass that area a bit more, and look to Giroud to hold the ball up and give us an outlet.
He’s certainly much more capable of doing that than Walcott, and if he can get himself on Mascherano and use his physicality and touch to win the ball, then that would make sense, as well as giving us an aerial threat. It’s wrong to say Barcelona are weak in any area, but they’re not the tallest team, and perhaps that’s somewhere we can take advantage if set-piece delivery and crossing is good.
Would he then use Walcott on the right hand side? Having that pace to counter-attack would be handy weapon, but in recent times Wenger has made it fairly obvious he doesn’t trust Walcott from a defensive point of view. So, unless he has a major sit down with him and beats it into him that he’s got to be switched on at all times, it seems unlikely.
The issue though is who is that much better? Joel Campbell probably is, but doesn’t seem to bring out the best in Hector Bellerin, another player whose pace could be important. They tend to slow each other down, whereas when he plays with somebody like Oxlade-Chamberlain (also not the most secure defensively), or Aaron Ramsey, he tends to get forward a lot more.
Then you might ask do we want him getting forward in a way that might leave us exposed? Even if Francis Coquelin will shield the back four with much more discipline than others, we have to be mindful of leaving space for them to exploit because they’re deadly at it. Could he pack the midfield and push Ramsey out there? Is it too soon for Danny Welbeck to start a game of this magnitude?
Even talking pre-game, it’s hard to know exactly what Wenger is thinking. On the one hand he’s obviously keen to keep a clean sheet, knowing how damaging away goals can be in this competition:
Many times I have said that should be suppressed because if you concede a goal at home in the Champions League it’s a knife in your heart every time. Against big teams it becomes very difficult, It’s true that recently our goals have dried up a bit and we have to find a way to get that going again. But I am more concerned about stopping them from scoring because at home in the Champions League nil-nil is not a bad score.
On the other though, he knows that putting them under some pressure, and testing the area of the team where they’re least-strong will be important too:
I cannot go into a game and think I will just play a zero-zero. I believe you cannot say you are a big club and you just want to defend. On the other hand, Barcelona is a very offensive team. So to give you no chance at all to score against them is guilty as well. You have to try to score against them because if they have a vulnerability like we have it is defensively like with any offensive team.
Trying to find that balance is needle in a haystack stuff against a team like this, and it is undoubtedly going to be a massive test. We’ve done it before though, as that famous win in 2011 shows. If that wasn’t quite as brilliant a Barcelona team, it was also an Arsenal team that few would give any chance to if they had to do it again tonight.
It’s been interesting to see talk of how much we should concentrate on tonight when the Premier League is a much more attainable goal this season. It’s impossible to argue against that fact, but I don’t think we can afford to do anything but give it everything tonight. The players won’t be looking at this in any other way than a huge match against brilliant opposition, and a chance to pit themselves against the best team in Europe.
Isn’t this what the Champions League should be about? If our group stage was dramatic, that was down to us making it that way through some poor performances rather than any inherent excitement in that part of the competition. It’s usually pretty dull. But this, this is the real deal. These are the games that the players want to play in, and they should be the games that fans cherish, rather than dismissing them as irrelevant because they’re difficult.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the outlook, and the fear that taking a beating might dent our confidence and form. For me though, we don’t have much of either at the moment, and maybe we should look at this as a game that can help our Premier League ambitions rather than hurt them.
For all their quality, we have a bit of our own too. It would be great to see Alexis Sanchez find some form against his old club. Do we not think Mesut Ozil, a former Real Madrid player, will be well up for this one? And this is a relatively mature, experienced side who will know all eyes are on them this evening and will want to prove those who say this is going to be a thrashing wrong.
It might end up that way, who knows? This Barcelona side can go to the Bernebeu and stick 4 past Madrid, but it might also be one of those European nights that lives long in the memory of Arsenal fans. Hard work, 100% concentration, and a bit, or a lot of luck – you just don’t know, and that’s the beauty of football.
I think we’re all realistic enough to know how hard it’s going to be, but at the same time, if you can’t allow yourself to hope just a little, then what’s the point?
Remember, if for some reason you can’t see the game later, you can follow it on the live blog, where premium members can join in with the live chat. Check back for a post with all the details, or bookmark our default live blog page – it works on all devices, so even if time zones mean you’re stuck in work, you can keep up with all the action.
And if you haven’t yet had a chance to listen to yesterday’s Arsecast Extra, there’s a lot of Barcelona chat in there, as well as a bit about the FA Cup, some shocking chicken restaurant revelations, and a smattering of The Simpsons.
Right then, a long day of waiting and getting ever more nervous awaits. Have a good one, catch you later for the match.