Only one place to start today and that is with this morning’s spectacular Champions League draw, pittingus against Barcelona in a repeat of the 2006 final. Messi, Henry and co come to the Emirates on March 31, with the return leg in the Nou Camp six days later.
The gasp in the auditorium when the draw was made told its own story – this is one for the purists, and a tie the whole footballing world will be watching in earnest. Neither team can count defence as the strongest part of their game, but while we have every reason to be concerned about shackling their attacking talents, it was interesting to see the general reaction amongst Barcelona fans – they aren’t particularly thrilled at the prospect of taking us on either.
The general consensus is simple – it will be a wonderful footballing occasion, but the draw has hurt both side’s chances. A likely semi-final against Mourinho’s Inter won’t be easy either.
The scheduling, however, has been kind. Playing the first leg on the Wednesday gives us an extra day’s rest after our trip to Birmingham, but having the second leg on the Tuesday after is the most crucial, giving us an invaluable extra day to recover before our trip to White Hart Lane at the weekend. In between the two is a home game with Wolves, the sort of fixture you would hope to be able to rest players for and still come away with three points.
It would be easy to focus on the glamour of those occasions, but that is not a trap we can afford to fall into. We are potentially eight games away from lifting the Premiership, and while West Ham are struggling, particularly on the road, they have a history of surprising us – they were the last visitors to win at Highbury and the first at the Emirates.
The team news is excellent – Cesc, Song and Rosicky all return, and with just a few players remaining on the injured list, the bench tomorrow will be amongst the strongest we’ve had in a while, certainly offensively. If we continue in our current vein of taking games down to the wire, we might need those attacking talents to change the game.
We should win tomorrow, but it will be no walkover. Carlton Cole returns, and the Hammers will be confident of breaching our back line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it decided by late goals again, so my bet of the day is for the match to be poised at 1-1 at half time, which Sportingbet offer a very generous 10/1 on.
A good alternative is for the match to be level at half time, but for us to win it in the end. That double bet is available at 14/5.
It will be an interesting day for Sol Campbell in particular, whose last meeting with West Ham (their first team anyway – he did play their reserves earlier this year) was the infamous night he walked out at half time. Time to set things straight.
Chelsea and United don’t play until Sunday, and both have very tricky games. We will go top tomorrow if we win, and pile the pressure on in the process. The momentum is with us, tomorrow is for keeping it going.
Enjoy the game.