Feb 162011

Do you ever feel like circumstances are conspiring against you?

Last season, I found myself unable to watch either of the two Barcelona ties, at least live. The first leg at the Emirates coincided with a work trip to Chicago, so I was stuck in a room with a bunch of lawyers representing two large corporates, listening to them fail to agree anything while sneaking glances at BBC’s text commentary. The second leg landed on the night that Dara O’Briain came to town, a gig I had promised to take people too. The only consolation that night was that Dara himself is a massive Gooner, and was doing the same ‘watch it live later’ trick, so he wasn’t going to give the score away.

When the draw came up this year, I was delighted. I don’t buy the argument that you want to face the weaker teams – if you’re going to lift the trophy you’ve got to come up trumps against the big guns sooner or later, and if you actually look at our record we’ve gone out to supposed weaker sides just as much as the top ones. The only teams you really want to avoid are those from your own country. Besides, this is Arsenal-Barcelona – if you don’t relish that, you’re in the wrong sport.

Warning bells began to ring when I saw the date of the first leg. 16th February. Hmm, that’s my wife’s birthday, and not only that, this year is a landmark one. Can’t ignore that, so once again the match is getting taped and watched late into the night. At least I can watch the second leg this time. After all, it is only two weeks away, and I’m around that week. We’re not taking the kids on holiday for another week after that….

So imagine my face when I realised that, in fact, the second leg was a week later than I’d planned for, and I won’t be in the country for it. Four of the best matches you can imagine in football, and I won’t have watched a single one of them live. I’ll have to make sure I’m definitely free to see us spank Spurs in the next round…

As for the game itself, I’m quite relaxed about it really. It is almost the feeling an underdog gets before a big FA Cup game – nothing to lose. Everyone expects us to get taught a lesson, pointing to last season’s tie and Barcelona’s form as evidence. While they have fair points, we got hammered in the Nou Camp with a side that resembled our Carling Cup XI, so decimated were we by injuries, and with all due respect to La Liga, it is hardly the competitive standard of the Premiership. The top brass are top drawer, but the bottom half of that league is woeful.

That said, Barcelona are clearly a supreme football team. Not a particularly supreme club – their continued off-field antics are disrespectful at best – but as a footballing outfit they have no superiors. Beating them is no mean feat, especially given that we don’t play the restraining game that is the only tactic with any success against them all season. But it is easy to focus on their strengths, and ignore ours. Unlike last year, our squad is practically fully fit. Only Vermalen’s injury and Sagna’s suspension stops this from being a complete first XI, and the depth of attacking talent we’ll have on the bench is startling. I can’t remember us having all those options available in the past – perhaps you only realise how strong the squad is when they’re all ready and available.

For me, there are two critical areas of the field. The first is obvious – the centre, where Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi will face Song, Cesc and Wilshere, a combined 14 years their junior (and the Barcelona trio are hardly old). The second is at full back – Barcelona attack with a great deal of width, and while much of the focus has been on Eboue, who needs to put in a good performance, Clichy will be equally tested on the other flank. Nasri and Walcott, assuming they start, must help out.

Eboue may actually be helped by Barca’s fear of Walcott – he was awesome against them last season and has been the main subject of their press build up. If they worry too much about him, he’ll be able to pin that side of the pitch down and our fears about Eboue can be relaxed. We’ll see.

In five games between the two sides, no-one has yet kept a clean sheet, and I wouldn’t expect that to change. Barcelona may not surprise us with the same ferocity that they started the corresponding tie last season, but they will certainly not sit back, and we know how important taking a lead to Spain is. There could be a few goals in this.

In about an hour, I’m going into lockdown. Phone will be off, Twitter will remained unopened despite temptations, and I’ll be a dutiful husband until about 11pm, when I’ll get myself a* beer and sit in front of the match. I hope by then, you lot will be celebrating.

Enjoy the game.

*the singular form of that word may not be strictly accurate.

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