So here we are. Champions League semi final, our second in history, and our first ever European tie against the side who have been our greatest rivals for the last fifteen years. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.
The players will be nervous, no doubt – ties like this might come along once or twice in a career, and a lot rides on how mentally tuned those involved are. We’ve been here once before against Villareal, and on that occasion we were fragile in the mind, certainly in the second leg, as nerves took over. Fortunately, our opponents in that tie were quite forgiving, and unable to exploit our weakness.
This time we’re up against an opponent who will ruthlessly take us down if we show the same fear. Having the crucial second leg at home is certainly a bonus in that respect, but United will be up for it tonight and we have to match them. These are the moments careers are defined by.
As for the team, there are a couple of questions to be answered. The defence picks itself if Silvestre fails his fitness test, with Gibbs and Djourou at left back and centre back respectively. If he is fit, then Silvestre could play in either position, and after being selected at the weekend my suspicion is his inclusion would push Djourou to the bench rather than Gibbs.
4-5-1 is an inevitability, so Ade will be up front on his own, supported by Cesc and Song in the centre, and Walcott on the right. Other than that, there are options – Nasri may play the holding role, but my suspicion is he’ll start on the left with one of Denilson or Diaby in the middle. I’d prefer to see Diaby start behind Ade, with Cesc dropping back to a more central role, but if so Diaby has a big night ahead of him and must keep up with the pace of the game. He is capable, and does rise to big occasions – tonight could be his night.
My prediction would be:
Sagna Toure Silvestre Gibbs
Walcott Cesc Song Nasri
An away goal would be a massive boost tonight as even a 0-0 away draw, good result as it would be, leaves you vulnerable on your own ground. And with that, I’m actually going to predict a narrow 2-1 defeat that leaves everything open for the second leg. I’ve never predicted a defeat before but that’s my hunch. I’d love to be wrong, but as long as we withstand their inevitable early pressure I think we can come away with a result that gives us a great chance in the second leg.
I won’t be on Twitter tonight, as my business trip means I’ll most likely not be home in time for kick off. As a result, I’ll be watching it on a time delay and refusing to answer the phone.
It promises to be a cracker. Enjoy it, wherever you are.