I’m excited for today’s game, I can tell you, and not just because the team are testing themselves against arguably the best club side in the world. Nope, I’m also exciting because as far as I’m concerned, this game and the one at the Nou Camp in a couple of weeks’ time are ‘freebies’ in my eyes.
Well, they’re not ‘freebies’ in the most literal sense of the word, because they still cost a pretty penny to attend. But in the sense that I don’t feel as much nerves as usual, I just feel excited, because we’re expected to go out. And if we go out, then we’ll probably go out against the eventual winners, of which there is no shame. Especially when there’s a domestic campaign that is still alive and kicking.
For me, tonight’s game is a ‘win-win’. We play an excellent Barcelona team who will most likely beat us over two legs, but if we can get a result tonight, think how amazing that would be for morale at the club. Think how well that will stand us for our title run in, which is the most important competition of all for us, especially this season. Going to Old Trafford on Sunday having beaten the best team in the world will put those players on cloud nine. So that’s what I’m hoping for. But if we lose, we have to be able to shrug it off quickly, because there are other important games to come.
Arsène has spoken about our need to not concede the away goal tonight and whilst the statement is true and we can all agree to it, I suspect there will be few amongst us in the ground or watching on TV, who will truly believe that we won’t. It will take a Herculean evening of defending to avoid that. You only have to look at the forward trio’s goalscoring records since Suarez arrived to see that it isn’t so much an uphill task, as it is an up-mountain task under the floodlights of the Emirates.
Barcelona will – according to Arsène – play with a different style to the team’s that have previously played at The Emirates. They will look to give us more ball than we’ve seen before, but break with lightning speed on the counter, like we used to see in the good old days of the Invincibles. I’m not so sure that the remnants of Pep’s Barcelona don’t still remain though. Under his stewardship, Barcelona pressed all over the pitch, suffocating possession from us and in most cases hunting in packs. I suspect we’ll still see that in patches tonight, but given our team should be a bit fresher – Barca did not rest anybody from their starting line up at the weekend I’m told – I’m hoping that we can move the ball quickly and show the world that we’re not just Barcelona’s opponents, but a team that can honestly compete with them. Even if it is only in patches.
That’s why we have to be better in front of goal though, because we will not create nearly as many chances as we have done in the recent weeks and so if we get sight of Ter Stegen’s goal we have to not drill balls right down his throat. We’ve been good at that lately. But this is not an amazing back line that Barca has. Pique doesn’t hit Sergio Ramos levels of calamity, but he does have a Rick in him and in Mascherano there is a feisty centre half, but he’s beatable too. My hope is to see Olivier peel off and on to Mascherano. He’s got the height advantage and should be strong enough to win more balls than the Argentinian, so that’s where we could get some joy.
But he needs to be supported and that’s where Alexis and probably The Ox come in. If you’re going to have a guy like Giroud win balls and hold up play around him, then he needs the two wide men close by to profit from his detention of possession. Alexis and Giroud haven’t exactly got the best understanding in the world and many far more eloquent than I have articulated that through statistical evidence. But tonight we will see an Alexis who will be really tired up for this and so my hope is that a big night like tonight is one in which he announces his arrival back from injury properly. We need him firing on all cylinders and whilst he has been part of the problem recently with his own profligacy in front of goal, we know the quality is there for him to be part of the solution, so it would be handy if he could ‘click’ tonight. Especially as we get to the business end of this season.
The rest of our team is fairly obvious, but as Henry pointed out a couple of days ago, Barcelona are intelligent enough to know that most of the good we do with the ball centres around Özil. So I expect him to get no space whatsoever, which means that Ramsey, Coquelin, The Ox and Alexis all need to give him ample support when he needs it. We know that he can thread the eye of the needle with his passing accuracy, but I’d be surprised if he’s given too many opportunities to do so. So make the most of the chances he does have, Arsenal, make the most of those chances.
We can do this. It’s ninety minutes and we’ve proven that we have a resilience in the squad that can grind out results of we need to. We might have to do a bit of grinding this evening, but as long as we back the players by singing loud and proud, they will respond on the pitch.
I just hope it’s enough.