Tuesday night is huge. Taking a lead to Barcelona is essential if you have any hope of knocking them out of the Champions League, but such a situation is far from a guarantee of success. In fact, I’d go as far as to say we are still heavy underdogs – very few people seem to give us a chance. The ‘that was a great win but you’ll come unstuck in Spain‘ line is commonplace.
They could be right. We might pull off a stunning result in the Nou Camp and progress, or we might go out. If the latter occurs, I have to be honest and say I won’t be as gutted as perhaps I should be. It seems strange, but it feel like a bonus game somehow – losing to Barcelona is no disgrace, and we’ve already proved in the first leg that we can mix it with the best. But more than that, if we aren’t going to win the Champions League, going out now is the best thing that could happen for our chances of lifting silverware this season. Right now, it feels like we’re crawling from one game to the next with walking wounded, a familiar situation that isn’t a sign of squad weakness as the pundits claim, but merely a byproduct of fighting on four fronts. The same analysts who criticise our reserve defenders make excuses for United’s when Vidic and Ferdinand are missing.
The prospect of winning the league is very realistic. United’s defeat leaves us three points behind them with a game in hand. They still have to come to the Emirates, and they still have to play Chelsea. I am certain they will progress past Marseille, so their fixture list is about to get very taxing – no squad in the league can boast a reserve team of stars to step in, even the financial powerhouses of Chelsea and City, so that would bring an inevitable weakening of their team from match to match. The same eleven cannot play every game, as we are finding, and in a way, it is those who step into the breach that are the most important members of the squad.
On Tuesday we are in the Nou Camp, at the weekend we travel to Old Trafford. Van Persie, Vermaelen and Walcott won’t play either, Cesc and Song are doubts for the former, but while that sounds disastrous, it is largely short term. We have only had one midweek off since Christmas, and even that was for the international break in early February. Following next weekend, we have a precious seven days before a trip to West Brom. After that comes another international break, and two weeks until a home game with Blackburn. The midweek that follows is reserved for the Champions League.
Imagine that Barcelona knock us out on Tuesday night. Our fixture list would then look like this:
12 March – Man United, a (FA Cup)
19 March – WBA, a (Premiership)
2 April – Blackburn, h (Premiership)
10 April – Blackpool, a (Premiership)
17 April – Liverpool, a (Premiership), or FA Cup semi final.
Now that is a spaced out fixture list, exactly the sort of thing you need when you have a squad packed with niggling injuries. Vermaelen and Van Persie aside, everyone should be fit by the end of the month, even allowing for setbacks, which means they will only miss one more league game. Not too disastrous for a Premiership title tilt.
Progression in the Champions League would, ironically, make our chances of lifting silverware slimmer, so while a glorious night in Barcelona would be a special occasion, it is in reality a win-win – a loss, and the bookies will slash our Premiership odds.
In other news, the blog will be taking a short break for a family holiday, but only for a few days, so don’t expect anything around the game on Tuesday night. I’ll be doing my best just to watch it, and put up with foreign commentary (which, in fairness, is likely to be an improvement). I also missed celebrating another blog birthday (four years old now, bless), and as usual I will be giving the site a belated birthday present on my return.
What present, I hear you ask (perhaps)? Well, from next weekend I’ll be doing my best to make this a daily blog rather than the infrequently updated site that it currently is, with a few new weekly features to look out for, and to add to that, the podcast will return on March 16. It ran only for three episodes last year, and if I’m totally honest it was a little placid, so I’m looking to liven it up a little. Stay tuned for that.
So all that is left to say is enjoy the week, enjoy Barcelona and I’ll see you on the other side.