Cesc Fabregas has started 24 games for Arsenal in all competitions this season. We have only lost four times when he has been in the starting eleven. But perhaps even more impressively, there are only four matches this season where Cesc played all 90 minutes and Arsenal failed to score at least two goals. No matter how you look at the squad, there is simply no denying the impact Cesc Fabregas has on Arsenal’s success and specifically, on the potency of Arsenal’s attack.
For anyone wondering if we can eliminate Barcelona on Tuesday, it almost certainly comes down to whether Cesc can start the match and play all 90 minutes. While we will undoubtedly miss Robin Van Persie, and Theo Walcott, and certainly struggle without Alex Song if he is unable to play, there is no player in the team whose presence has as immense an impact on Arsenal’s success as its captain. For those that have questioned his leadership on the pitch, they should consider the statistics.
We head to Barcelona frustrated by the draw with Sunderland, but I think some fans have gone overboard in criticizing the team’s performance. Yes, it was a golden opportunity to gain ground on the league leaders, but Sunderland are a Premier League club that has already won at Stamford Bridge this season. It’s not as if we simply had to show up with the proper attitude in order to claim all three points. Some fans seem to think that we should be playing every opponent off the pitch.
When you examine the Sunderland game, I think there’s more reason for positivity than despair. Wenger was forced to start a patchwork lineup yet again. As you might expect when that happens, the team started slowly and with little fluency in attack. Denilson and Diaby are two players that tend to slow the pace of the game and that took its toll on our buildup play. But as the game wore on, and specifically once Denilson was withdrawn, Arsenal proceeded to batter Sunderland. The home side was denied all three points only through a combination of great goal tending, the cross bar and two terrible calls by the referee. But we created chances and were good enough to win. Considering the players who were missing, I think it was a creditable performance deserving of three points.
It’s also worth remembering that we are playing every three days this time of year. It’s a busy period and, with injuries mounting, there are some players being asked to carry a very heavy load. But despite the possibility of fatigue and the opportunity to look past Sunderland towards the big trip to Catalonia on Tuesday, the players worked hard for 90 minutes and finished the game as the much stronger side. Compared to the limp capitulation at the tail-end of last season, I think we can agree that Arsenal look a much hungrier team this term.
Wenger himself has said that this return leg with Barcelona has been “hanging over” the squad for the past few weeks, and I think we will be better off once we get it out of the way, regardless of the result. The Premier League title is right there for the taking, and while we all want to progress in Europe, there’s no denying that elimination would make our domestic campaign more straightforward. You need only look back to last season to realize the truth of that claim. Once Chelsea were knocked out of the Champions League, their Premier League title charge began in earnest.
Last weekend I said that the Carling Cup final was something of a lose-lose proposition for Arsenal. If we had won the Cup, most pundits would have dismissed it as an inferior competition. Meanwhile, losing the Cup had the potential to be devastating to the team’s confidence. Regardless of the outcome, I was convinced that there was little to gain other than stopping the constant reminders of our trophy drought. Tomorrow’s match with Barcelona is quite the opposite.
We have absolutely nothing to lose in Spain on Tuesday night. If we are defeated by Barcelona, it will be nothing more than what most people expected in the first place. That still won’t take away our stunning victory at the Emirates, and it will clear potential European fixtures off our calendar during the crucial run-in. Moreover, the lack of several first-choice players gives us the perfect excuse for any sub-par performance. And the players will come away from the experience knowing we have gained ground on the best team in the world and that we are capable of playing at that level. There will be no scathing media reaction to an Arsenal loss on Tuesday.
On the other hand, if we are able to eliminate Barcelona, then the team will be brimming with confidence. We will begin to feel that this is “our year” and that we are good enough to defeat any opposition. After a night like the one in store tomorrow, there should be no atmosphere that intimidates any Arsenal player. Suddenly, lining up against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday won’t seem so daunting. And when they arrive at the Emirates in May, we will know we are more than a match for them. Additionally, it will give the rest of our opponents this season a reason to fear us. Great teams have a swagger and confidence that can win a match against lesser opposition before it even begins. The Invincibles had a swagger, and this team needs to develop one of their own.
Overall, I expect us to be eliminated on Tuesday. I don’t think we are quite up to Barcelona’s level at this moment. If we were able to select our first choice eleven for this match, I might feel differently. But the fact that we’re not entirely sure who will be on the pitch at kickoff tells a story of its own. We’ve played our best football when our best players have had a run of games together. But unfortunately it will be another new lineup for this match.
Meanwhile, Barcelona will have the luxury of selecting their best players in the areas where it matters most. We can focus on the fact that Pique and possibly Pujol will be missing, but those aren’t the players that make Barca so difficult to beat. Its the soul-destroying possession football played by Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi, Pedro and Villa that makes them the best team in the world. It’s their passing, movement and pressing that makes them dangerous. And we can expect to see that entire group starting the match on Tuesday. We saw a glimpse of what they can do a fortnight ago at the Emirates, and we remember all too well what they did to us last season. We can only hope that Arsenal have some answer for that threat this time around
But just because I don’t think we will progress, doesn’t mean that we cant. Remember, this team tends to score two or more goals when Cesc plays 90 minutes and I expect him to do that tomorrow. Moreover, I think there’s less pressure on us than on Barcelona. As I said earlier, no one expects us to clear this hurdle, but it would be a massive disappointment if they were to falter. I also think the away-goals rule plays right into our hands this time around. We are not a team that plays to keep clean sheets and I would be stunned beyond measure if we kept one at the Camp Nou. But we can create chances against any team in the world and we will create chances tomorrow.
Let’s say Barcelona start the game in brilliant form and score an early goal. Who cares? Let’s say they push ahead and score another one. So what? It really doesn’t change anything. We need a goal. That’s all. Even if they batter us for 89 minutes, if we manage to hold them to two goals or fewer, one meager away goal guarantees us at least extra time. And in extra time, we have 30 minutes to score another away goal that would almost surely send them crashing out. Plus, we’ve already seen that Barca tire towards the end of the match. We are certainly the more fit side. If we can stay within two goals of Barcelona heading into the last 20 minutes, there’s no reason why we can’t get the goal or two that would see us progress.
That’s why I think Arsene has to do what he does best. He has to instruct his team to step onto the Camp Nou pitch with every intention to go score some goals. Arsenal need to play this match like a Premier League fixture against bottom of the table opposition. (And no, I don’t mean stroll through it for 70 minutes.) We can’t walk out there thinking about a nil-nil and soaking up pressure for 90 minutes. That plays right into Barcelona’s hands. And when Barca do score a goal, Arsenal heads could drop. But if the players start the game realizing that conceding a goal or two really doesn’t hurt them, then it takes some of the pressure off. It lets them think about having a little fun and trying to find the holes in a beatable Barcelona back four. It lets them focus on the counter attack opportunities. And that approach should bring out the best in our team. It will at least let them do what they do best. And if it’s still not enough to get past Barcelona, then I can live with that.
People seem to forget that we were leading at the Camp Nou last season. And with that one goal lead, Diaby had a chance to play Theo in behind the Barca defense. He made the wrong pass, we never got a second goal, and Messi did what only Messi is capable of doing. But the situation was different last season. Barca had scored two goals at the Emirates and we were on level terms heading into the second leg. When we scored the opening goal, their task was still straightforward.
This time around, with a lead in the tie and having conceded a single away-goal, scoring an opening goal will put massive pressure on the home side. Last season they could’ve earned extra time with a 2-2 home draw. This season, if we score 2, they will need 4 goals to progress. In conclusion, the easiest way to take the pressure off our defense tomorrow is to score as many as we can and force Barcelona to score an avalanche of goals in order to progress. And then hope they don’t do it.
It’s a win-win scenario for Arsenal. It’s a chance to have some fun and try to score some goals. It’s an opportunity to play in a wonderful stadium in front of 90,000 fans. It’s a night where the players can become heros and legends without the risk of condemnation if they fail. There’s plenty to be gained from progression, but almost just as much to be gained domestically from elimination. So the pressure should be off the players, and it’s up to the manager to make them see it that way.
I’m not going to bother discussing who should start. Obviously we need Cesc on the pitch. But whether it’s Chamakh or Bendtner, Diaby or Song, the challenge remains the same. I’d love to have all of our first choice players fit and ready to go, but that’s not the case and it’s pointless to lament that fact. All we can do now is support the team, enjoy the occasion and remember that there’s a lot of big games to play after Tuesday regardless of the outcome. It’s not going to be easy and there’s every chance that it won’t go the way we hope. But crazier things have happened in football than Arsenal eliminating Barcelona.
They got a little lucky when they beat us in Paris. Maybe this time around, the luck will be on our side. It’s about time.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!