Here we go. Since the draw was made, we’ve been waiting for tonight with bated breath. There could have been nothing to play for, but the never-say-die spirit shown last week has left the tie firmly in the balance.
At this stage of the season, one of two things is normally happening. Either a) every match is a pressure cooker situation, usually labelled a ‘must-win’, or b) you’re out of contention. I’m no fan of Alex Ferguson, but there’s no doubting his ‘squeaky bum’ assertion of games played in April and May.
But tonight is different. The most glamorous of stadia welcomes us, and absolutely no-one gives us a prayer. Barcelona are rightfully considered the best team in the world, and while they are missing their two main centre backs, our absentee list reads: Van Persie, Cesc, Arshavin, Song, Gallas (all certain starters), Gibbs, Djourou, Ramsey and possibly Rosicky and Campbell, depending on late fitness tests.
It is easy to see why we’re considered heavy underdogs, but so were Fulham recently, right before they dismantled a supposedly superior Juventus side. Would a win tonight rank alongside our biggest upsets? Yes. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.
Frankly, the pressure is off. Even if Barcelona brush us aside, we can hold our heads high for even being in the tie at this stage, and return to the Premiership, still in the hunt for a trophy as the season draws to a close. And that fact might release some of the tension that surrounds the game, and allow some of our instinctive players to shine.
The obvious example is Walcott who, in the absence of Cesc, is being pinpointed by the Spanish press as the main threat. Eboue, if he plays on the other flank, is another. Diaby, who cannot play worse than he did in the first leg, is a third. All these players are erratic, but when you’re underdogs you want the erratic players in your team. Why? Simple – erratic players are capable of brilliance, and we need brilliance to win. A solid performance won’t be enough – we need moments of magic.
The major concern, as always, is the defence. With Gallas injured, Wenger appeared to have a tough choice to make – risk the 35 year old legs of Campbell, or bring Song out of midfield. But the Cameroonian hasn’t travelled, and even Sol is a doubt. Silvestre v Messi just isn’t funny.
Fingers crossed Campbell can play, because his experience and will to win complements Vermaelen’s skill and attitude, and would make us a tougher nut to crack. Ahead of him, Denilson needs to continue his upturn in form. They all need to defend like troopers, but if we’re still in the tie after an hour, Barcelona will start to worry. Remember, they are expected to win comfortably – the pressure is firmly on their shoulders.
And they know full well how strong we are in the latter stages of matches.
13/2??? This is Arsenal we’re talking about, not the bleeding Faroe Islands.
With only a win or a very high scoring draw putting us through, we probably have to claim the win in ninety minutes to progress, so that is my bet of the day.
There is no doubting tonight will be tough. We have a patched up side, they have a collection of the finest attacking talent anywhere in the world. They have proved once that they can tear us apart at will if they play to their best. But take a look at the Spanish press – they are not writing us off.
We may win, we may not. But we don’t have another game for eight days after this, so whatever happens, leave everything on the pitch.
Wherever you are, enjoy it. These games don’t come around that often.
Come. On. Arsenal.