Barcelona are considered by some to be the best European club side of all time. While that might be hyperbole, it’s an argument with some merit. There is no denying the strength of their side, or ignoring what they have achieved in recent seasons. What is certain is that Barcelona are the best team in Europe at the moment and Arsenal couldn’t ask for more difficult opposition.
But there’s no reason to think we can’t match Barcelona’s quality. Their back four will be far from the best we’ve faced this season. With players like Van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri, Theo and Cesc likely taking part in this match, we can certainly score goals against them. And while their attacking options are beyond compare, we can certainly work hard and make them earn any goals they might get. Barcelona won’t be awarded three goals just for showing up at the center circle for the opening kickoff.
When you look at the list of players taking part in today’s match, I simply don’t accept that Barcelona’s talent is so far beyond ours that Arsenal cannot compete. What I do question is whether our players have the belief and self-confidence to play their best football. That is what I think will determine the outcome of this match, and perhaps decide who advances to the quarter-finals.
Barcelona will show up at the Emirates full of confidence because they have won every trophy available. They know that they are capable of winning this match and will play with no fear and no hesitation. While we might be able to beat Barca today, it will not be because they failed to play their football. If we want to win this game, we must be able to match their belief.
All too often in the past few seasons, we have listened to Arsene Wenger refer to his team playing with the “handbrake on” in his post-match interviews. It’s something that’s been most common in big games. While this team is capable of flamboyant, skillful, devastating football, we’ve seen too many big matches where the players have seemed too unsure of themselves to reach their full potential. A perfect example came very recently at Old Trafford.
No one would accuse this season’s Manchester United of being a juggernaut. They’ve managed to achieve the top spot in the Premier League by being the most consistent performers while rarely being spectacular. When we arrived in Manchester, many believed that we brought the better team to Old Trafford. And while I still think that might have been the case, United were able to rather comfortably defeat an Arsenal side that put forth a stale and lifeless display. I don’t think anyone would suggest that Arsenal didn’t want to win the match, but we didn’t give the impression that we believed we would. Rather than playing with the swagger and confidence of a team with superior talent, we played with the hesitance of a team that hadn’t won a truly big match in ages. We didn’t play Arsenal football, and it had more to do with our own mentality than anything United did on the pitch.
That United match is a microcosm of the problems this team has had in big games in recent years. We’ve often let the nervousness or a big occasion overwhelm us. And usually the end result is a tepid performance and unsatisfactory result. After beating Chelsea in late December, we’ve seen the team begin to develop a swagger. In recent weeks we’ve played our opponents off the pitch at times. We will need that swagger today.
The other mental problem for this Arsenal team is staying focused on the moment at hand. Spectacular collapses have become something of a trademark for Arsenal in recent seasons and that’s entirely down to mentality. You could argue that our two best halves of football this season were the first halves against Spuds and at Newcastle. Ironically, we took at total of one point from those two matches. But we didn’t lost to Spuds or draw at Newcastle because those teams were superior to us. We didn’t let the games slip away because we were unable to match their performances. We gave away those games because we became complacent and nervous. Those qualities need to be laid to rest once and for all.
If we are going to beat Barcelona today we will need to believe in our football, have the confidence to play our football, and stay focused on the task at hand for 90 minutes. If we come out of the dressing room with the slightest hesitation or fear, then we will be well and truly beaten.
There’s another piece to the Arsenal puzzle, however, and that’s injuries. We’ve used injuries as an excuse for many failures over the past few seasons, but this team is finally enjoying a relatively injury-free period. With our best players on the pitch, we are a very different proposition for our opponents.
People often talk about the importance of squad depth, and many Arsenal supporters like to brag about the depth of our squad. But the reality is that our second choice players haven’t won us very much in the past few seasons despite having every opportunity. Denilson can’t replace Song or Wilshere. Rosicky is no replacement for Cesc. Chamakh and Bendtner have talent, but they are vastly inferior to Robin Van Persie at the moment. Just ask Newcastle if Squillaci is a satisfactory replacement for Djourou. And unfortunately, we will get a chance to see Eboue’s ability to replace Sagna today.
It doesn’t matter that we have some very talented squad players, they simply aren’t good enough to deliver us results in big matches. They aren’t ready to beat the Uniteds and Chelseas and Barcas of the world. But today, they won’t be the one’s tasked with getting the big result. For the most part, it will be a team of first choice players matching up with Barcelona. And it’s been a long time since we’ve had that luxury in a big game.
Neither Cesc, nor Theo, nor Van Persie, nor Djourou started the match at Old Trafford in December. None of those players took part in the match at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. And the team that was dismantled at the Nou Camp last season was almost entirely second choice players. So when we consider whether this team is ready to win the big games against top competition, it’s fair to suggest that they’ve never really been given the chance. Today, most of our key players will be together with a chance to win a really big game. That’s only happened one other time in recent memory, and the result was a dominant 3-1 win over Chelsea.
I don’t know what Nasri will be able to contribute today, if anything at all. I certainly don’t know what to expect from Eboue, and I would suggest that he doesn’t know either. This isn’t Zonal Marking and I’m not going to dive into tactical analysis because I’m not even sure that’s what matters the most in this match. What I do know is that a confident and mostly fit Arsenal side are a match for Barca. That doesn’t mean we’ll beat them, but it means we can.
I think the key to this match, and to the tie in general, might come down to how we play in the first 15 minutes. If we string some passes together, maybe create a chance, and prove to ourselves that we can play with Barca, then I think we will grow into the game and give them a stern examination. If we are tentative, they will destroy us. They will have no hesitation about their football whatsoever. And if they sense that we feel inferior it will only embolden them. We can’t play like we did in the first half of the first leg last season and expect a 2-2 scoreline after 90
There is one additional factor consider today and that’s the level of competition each team has faced. Barca hasn’t played a good team in a very long time. Their league is lacking the kind of weekly challenges we face. They were held to a draw at the weekend by a poor Sporting Gijon side, but I don’t think that’s down to the quality of their opponents. In order to stay sharp, footballers need to be challenged. If Barca have been cruising through La Liga because of a paucity of competition, then it’s possible they will be unprepared for what we have to offer. Of course, it’s also possible that they’ve been cruising through La Liga because they are spectacular, but it’s worth considering. We will certainly be a massive step up in quality from what they’ve been facing. I realize it will also be big step up for Arsenal, but I do think we’re pushed harder by our opponents on a weekly basis.
Ultimately I can see us winning this match and that says it all. I can see us winning this match because we are capable of being the best team in Europe. But being capable of something and actually doing it are two different things. There’s a huge opportunity here for this Arsenal side to show the world that they have come of age. It’s the chance for Wenger’s grand plan to be realized. With the proper belief, it’s a chance I believe this team can take.
It’s nerve-wracking. It’s terrifying. It’s nausea inducing. But it’s wonderful too. This is what you live for as a player and a supporter. It’s a chance to test ourselves against one of the greatest teams of all time. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. Hopefully the players will see this as a great opportunity and play with joy and enthusiasm. I’m sure every supporter from every corner of the world will be right behind the players with all their heart and soul. As will I.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!