It’s the most important game of the season
After a breathless and unrelenting second leg tie at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Liverpool, our players should be well aware that there are no guarantees in the Champions League. If Chelsea thought that a 3-1 away victory was a safe lead heading into the second leg, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Hopefully it served as a warning to Arsenal that our tie is still finely balanced. Only our best effort will be enough to sink the Yellow Submarine.
It would be easy to focus on injuries leading up to this match. Villareal will miss Senna and Cazorla, while we will be playing a back four hand picked from a local grade-school girls team. And while the injured players are a big loss for both teams, they cannot and will not impact the result today. It’s down to the players that will compete to secure qualification for the semi-final. Villareal will still have plenty of firepower on display with players like Rossi, Llorente, Nihat, Pires, Ibagaza, and Cani. They have already shown that they have the quality to trouble our best defenders. It will be a Herculean task to prevent Villareal from dominating us in possession as they did in Spain. It will certainly be interesting to see how they fare on the much more spacious Emirates pitch.
Meanwhile, I think the toughest assignment today belongs to Arsene Wenger. He will be so incredibly tempted to start a conservative lineup. Despite what he has said in his interviews about playing aggressively, you can certainly see him playing the 4-2-3-1 again with Song and Denilson once again protecting the back four. I want to be clear in my opinion about this decision. If Wenger starts Song and Denilson in midfield together and plays a lone striker, we will be eliminated from the Champions League today. The defense has looked just as vulnerable with two holding midfielders, but the attack has been a shadow of its flowing best. The striker is isolated, Cesc looks out of place, and both wingers drift out of the match. I am hugely opposed to this lineup generally and even more vehement that it would be the wrong choice for tonight.
Wenger has the talent in attack to blow Villareal off the pitch. They conceed goals. They don’t handle crosses well. Why not put them to the sword? I really believe that we can win this game comfortably with a strong 4-4-2 lineup. Van Persie and Adebayor should start in attack. Nasri, Diaby, Cesc, and Theo should play across the midfield. Then Wenger can do what he wants with the defense. Personally, I’d play Sagna, Song, Toure, and Eboue at the back. It’s not optimal, but we don’t have many options. There’s experience in Sagna, Toure and Eboue, and Wenger would be going with the in-form player in Song.
At the very least, a lineup like that could keep Villareal on the back foot. They started to look tired at the end of the first leg, and there’s no reason why we can’t wear them down on our big pitch tonight. Following Theo Walcott around all night is enough to wear out any player, but when you add Nasri, Adebayor and Van Persie to the mix, then Villareal are bound to be doing a lot of chasing. A tired Villareal team will certainly be less likely to hit us with a sucker punch late in the match.
For me the key player is Theo Walcott. There’s a lot riding on his performance. He will certainly create problems with his pace and he will inevitably find some space down the right flank. If he can improve his distribution into the box, then it could be a field day for Adebayor. Villareal have been dreadful dealing with crosses into their penalty area recently.
The problem with the current scoreline is that it will be difficult to kill off the tie. One goal doesn’t really do anything to change Villareal’s fortunes. They know that if they can get a goal tonight, then we will need two to eliminate them. It would be beyond stupidity to attempt to play for a scoreless draw with our current personnel, so that leaves only one option. We should play to score goals. Not one goal. Multiple goals. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, but I genuinely believe that the Spanish side are there to be had. They’re missing their best midfielders and we are awash in attacking options. If we come at them early and pile on the pressure, we can get the goals to kill off the tie. If we play to protect our advantage then we invite disaster. Watching Chelsea and Liverpool proved that you can’t predict what will happen in this competition. Chelsea needed just about every one of those four goals to advance. And frankly, they could have lost that game 6-4.
There’s great belief in the team right now. I think that’s the one big advantage we have. Villareal have been very poor domestically in the last fortnight. They’re without two of their leaders and they let us take back the match in Spain when it looked like we were headed for defeat. There’s some cause for a lack of confidence in the Spanish side. Meanwhile, we are on our best run of form and have our captain and talisman back in the squad. All the more reason to get on top of Villareal early and see if they don’t just fall apart. Basically, I’m trying to talk myself into a chance at an easy night for us. In reality, the odds of that are slim.
This game is the most important in our season. It proves that Arsenal are a top European side. It helps vindicate Arsene Wenger for his belief in his players. It probably helps keep our best players at the Emirates for a while. And it really sets up a barnstorming finish to the season. When you think about it, if we do progress tonight, then you could argue that we have had a better season than Liverpool. We will have progressed father in Europe, father in the FA cup, and while we will not be competing for the league title, Liverpool most likely will not be able to overhaul United in the end.
If we eliminate Chelsea on Saturday, the same could be said of our season versus theirs. (Especially if we can overhaul them in the league.) Suddenly, you begin to realize that this season might look rosier in June than any of us suspected. We might be saying that only United had a better season than the Arsenal in 2008-2009. In fact, there’s a small chance that we might close out the season with the best results of any English side. But all of that is wishful thinking for now. All of that is dependent upon the result tonight. It really unlocks the door to a magical end of the season. And if United can’t recover from their 2-2 result against Porto last week, then our Champions League semi-final matchup might even see us as the favorite. It’s all very exciting, and it makes you realize how far we have come since February. But that means it will be a much more bitter disappointment if we can’t get the result tonight. So bitter, that I can’t bear to imagine it at this moment. So let’s not.
The lineup is key. It’s a real test of Wenger’s fortitude and belief in his own philosophy. He is a smarter man than I, and I trust he will make the best decision. It’s pointless now to second guess. If I were Arsene Wenger, right before tonight’s match I would play a tape of the last few minutes of the Liverpool second leg from last year. I would want my players to remember that feeling. If they remember how that felt, they will be far more inspired to fight to prevent it tonight.
This blog entry has been more a stream of consciousness than anything else. I’m so nervous and excited for this match that I’m stripped of my objectivity or insightful commentary. (Not that I was awash in those qualities before.) All I can do is hope that we see a performance like the first leg against Roma. If the players can provide that, then I think we’ll be through to the next round.
Arsene Wenger has called for the Emirate crowd to be loud and strong in their support. It’s so important. The Emirates, like Highbury before it, can be short on atmosphere at times. Obviously it’s worse when Arsenal aren’t at their best. Tonight, the players will need to be lifted by the crowd. If you’re going to the match, you are truly lucky to be there, so let us poor fools who can’t be at the stadium hear you loud and proud.
No matter where you’ll be, or how you’ll be watching, enjoy the match.
Come on you Gunners!