If we make it to the final, there could be a force of nature waiting for us
Barcelona 4-0 Bayern Munich
Don’t let the scoreline fool you, 4-0 flattered Munich. Had Thierry Henry converted on two very easy chances by his standards, 6-0 would have been on the cards with many more chances going begging. It’s always difficult in moments like this to know what you just witnessed. Were Bayern beyond dreadful, or were the Blaugrana simply unstoppable? The answer is probably somewhere in between the two. There’s no question that Munich’s back four are a joke. Let’s face it, they yielded five goals to Wolfsburg at the weekend. Tonight they covered themselves in shame with a total capitulation. But Barcelona were at their flowing best.
Messi is undoubtedly the best player in the world and Henry looks more dangerous than he has in three seasons. It’s simply ridiculous the way the ball sticks to Messi’s feet in traffic and he is incredibly composed when a goal scoring chance presents himself. How often do you see a player do all the hard work only to botch the finish? Messi never seems to have that problem.
What’s so impressive about Barcelona when they’re on their game is the way they create pressure so far up the field. They force the opposition to defend deep and really never let Bayern out of their own half of the pitch for the first 45 minutes. The reason that they do conceed goals is because there’s so much room between the midfield and the back four. When a Barcelona opponent is able to get out of their own half, there’s plenty of room to run. In fact, a good counter attacking team can really cause them defensive problems.
In final adjudication, I’d say the Catalans were magnificent for the first half tonight. The second half was less of a spectacle and Munich particpated in the game at least a little during the last half-hour. But no matter how bad the Munich back four can be, this is still a team that destroyed Sporting Lisbon in the last round and they were simply humiliated by Barcelona. Barca really look like a force to be reckoned with and there’s probably not a team in the world that can take Messi out of the match for 90 minutes. If they do make it to the final, it would surely prove the ultimate test for Arsenal should we somehow advance to Rome.
Two other notes from this match worth mentioning. First, I saw something tonight that I had never seen before. Franck Ribery actually exchanged shirts with Henry…at halftime! Maybe he saw the scoreline and thought that they wouldn’t be required to play the second half. Whatever the reason it was shameful. Worse, they were sharing a good old laugh together. For the traveling Bayern faithful it was a slap in the face of the worst kind.
Finally, tonight proved what I have been suggesting all along; Premier League referees are by far the worst in Europe. (I think the crooked Serie A referees did a better job in the games that were fixed.) Howard Webb was beyond pathetic tonight. It’s shameful how the EPL refs wilt under pressure. In the really big matches, they just find ways to get it horribly wrong. Tonight, Webb had two important decisions to make and he got them as terribly backwards as possible. Messi went down in the box in the first half. Clearly there was contact and many referees would have awarded a penalty although it could never be considered “stonewall.” Webb did not award the spot kick. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he booked Messi for diving. It was so poor that Pep Guardiola got himself banished to the stands.
Later, Van Bommel decided to take the cowardly approach to covering Messi and gave him a forearm smash to the face right in front of Webb. Webb let play continue and Henry scored. It was clearly a red card offense for which Van Bommel received nary a card of any color. Absolutely disgraceful. As bad as the EPL refs can be in regular league matches, they only get worse in the big games. Fortunately for Webb, his decisions today don’t look as though they’ll have any impact on the tie. Barcelona are surely through to the semi-final.
Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea
You have to admire the mindset of Liverpool and its supporters. One month ago, Rafa Benitez was on the hot seat and the team was on the brink of collapse. After three good results, Benitez is the greatest manager to ever coach football and has been signed to a long term contract. During that time, Steven Gerrard became the best player in Europe. So what happens now that Liverpool have been thoroughly embarassed at home in the Champions League and Gerrard was totally anonymous?
The most notable think about this game was that watching it did not induce vomiting. The previous meetings between the sides had been literally unbearable. Tonight was at least a spectacle. And if it weren’t for the most amazing hat full of Drogba misses, Chelsea would have scored six and killed off the tie completely. As it stands, they probably did enough to knock Liverpool out. But just to keep it interested, John Terry got one of the stupidest yellow cards I’ve seen in a while which rules him out for the second leg. My guess is that it won’t matter.
Ivanovic was probably the last person that Liverpool would have worried about scoring before the match, but they put on a display of set piece defending that makes Arsenal’s efforts this season look stingy. In general their back four was a sixes and sevens, and it was really a joy to behold. Partly because we play them fairly soon and partly because I hate them with every fiber of my being. They are the luckiest team on the planet next to United and they deserve a good European beating. I’m sure they’ll win the away leg 3-0 on two penalties and an own goal from Michael Essien scored from 30 yards out. Anything’s possible after the larceny they pulled on AC Milan in Turkey and the refereeing fiasco that let them knock us out last season.
Watching Liverpool play tonight highlighted one important fact about the Reds, if you can neutralize Steven Gerrard, they become as impotent as Phil Brown.
Manchester United 2-2 Porto
I know this match happened on Tuesday and we touched on it yesterday, but I just want to say a few words about it.
United look like they are reeling. If they were a boxer, then they’d have that glazed look in their eye like they’re contemplating falling to the ground. The defense has come unstuck recently and Johnny Evans is not the solution. Of course they continue to be dangerous in attack. With players like Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov, they’re always going to be able to score. But their midfield isn’t playing like it did earlier in the season. Giggs has faded and Ronaldo is not the player from last season. Players like Anderson and Nani have been disappointing. For all the depth at United that we keep hearing about, right now it doesn’t look like they have a real first-choice midfield worked out. At Arsenal, we know that Arshavin, Nasri, Fabregas and Walcott can compete with anyone in the world. And if they’re not the best midfield in the world, at least we know that they are first choice players for us. But who would United’s best be? It’s a reasonable question.
It was amazing the way Porto cut United to pieces at times during the match. In fairness, they should have won the game and may end up regretting the needless first goal that they conceeded. Had they not made that horrendous mistake, they could be taking a 2-1 lead back home and that would really put the cat among the pigeons. As it stands, Porto have a chance to advance, but no one would be surprised to see United win in Portugal.
Considering that Arsenal play both United and Liverpool away in the next few weeks, the last 24 hours will give us confidence that we can go to Old Trafford and Anfield and get results. It won’t be easy, but these games prove that it can be done.
The Arsenal news today is pretty much what you’d expect. Almunia is out for a week or two and Gallas is sweating out the results of his knee scan. If he does have ligament damage, then he’s lost for the season. But what the means for his future is interesting. During his absence, Djourou will either develop into a confident starting center-half, or he won’t. If he does, then it makes Gallas expendable. If Djourou struggles during the next two months, we may be more inclined to continue with William next season. (And don’t tell me about possible transfer targets to replace him because I’m not putting myself through that right now. If we didn’t get a holding midfielder last summer, why should we expect to get a center-half this summer? In fact, I think this summer could be our quietest transfer period ever. There’s plenty of time to discuss that later so let’s leave it there.)
Finally, a few more words about our 1-1 draw in Spain. I watched the game again today as I always seem to do and I was a little more encouraged by our performance. The first half was mostly dreadful except for an eight or ten minutes period in the middle when we got some possession. Otherwise, it was bordering on shambolic. We defended poorly on a set piece, didn’t close down, and got caught defending too deep in our own half. Wenger said that it was their wingers that caused us the most problems. They kept coming infield and we didn’t deal with it. Well, shouldn’t that be the responsibility of Song and Denilson? If we’re playing two holding midfielder in the center of the pitch and Villareal’s wingers are coming infield, shouldn’t they be landing right on top of our defensive helpers? Makes sense. But it didn’t work that way. Again, I didn’t think the formation did us any favors.
In the second half we passed better and controlled the tempo more. The big change for me seemed to take place when Nasri got into a more central role. I’m not sure if Wenger changed the strategy, but it appeared to become a 4-4-1-1. Whatever it was, it worked better. I think after Arsene watches the tape of this game, he’ll be inclined to play a 4-4-2 at home. Why not put your best players on the pitch for your biggest game. If it’s down to RVP or Denilson sitting on the bench, there’s not even a moments hesitation for me. As I wrote yesterday, world-class players win the big games.
While I like Johan Djourou, I’ll be hoping against hope for Gallas’ scan to come back negative. Having seen the injury again, I’d be surprised if it does. But heading into the most challenging games of the season, we could really use his experience. (As opposed to Silvestre’s experience, which is a bad thing.)
It’s a really big game on Saturday by the way and we can’t afford to overlook that with the excitement of European play. It’s our first real challenge domestically for a long time and with Anfield up after the JJB, we need three points ensure that we keep Villa at bay. It looks like we won’t be dealing with the threat of Zaki, but Wigan have played well without him. If can take all the points from that game, I’ll be much more confident that our resurgence hasn’t been largely embellished by the lesser quality teams we’ve faced. Looking at the fixture list tonight was pretty depressing. We’re running out of Arsenal football at a time when it’s just getting really enjoyable. Leave it to football to make summer undesirable.
Let’s not think about that right now…