So here we are. By an absolute country mile and a half our biggest game of the season. The success of Arsène’s last year in charge of the club we love could well boil down to 90 – or in an extreme case 120 – minutes of football against one of the most defensively disciplined sides in the whole of Europe.
We’re in Madrid again but this time it’s not the Goliath that is Real, but it’s slightly smaller – but still equally as frightening – cousin Atletico who we face and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if the feeling I have in the pit of my stomach is excitement, fear, nerves, or a bit of everything.
Can Arsenal beat this Atletico team tonight? Of course. Will they be able to overcome a team that showed just how important a rock-steady defensive line can be in knockout competitions over two legs? That I’m not sure.
I’ve listened to the radio, podcasts, watched TV build up, read blogs and written some of my own thoughts. Now it’s down to the team on the pitch and the Arsenal players realising that this season is sh*t or bust when they take to the pitch at 8pm tonight.
In just over 14 hours we’ll know if this team has that fight in them, or if they’re as they’ve been all season; a wilting flower incapable of delivering performances when it absolutely matters.
Last Thursday completely knocked the stuffing out of me. It sapped so much of my confidence and whilst I feel a bit better than I did last Friday, I’m still not really fully believing that we can overcome an Atleti team who really do appreciate the art of defending.
What makes tonight more frustrating is that we know that the emphasis is on us. I’m sure Madrid and Simeone would like nothing better than to turn this into a scoreless testimonial feel of a game if they could. The onus is therefore on Arsenal to come out and so we have to try to make the game as open as possible.
Going forward I’m sure we have no problem with that, but it’s at the back that every time Costa or Griezmann go forward, we’ll be absolutely sh*tting ourselves. That’s because our back line has it well within itself to brain fart on multiple occasions in a game and I suspect we’re going to give Atletico some big chances tonight. What has saved us this season in this competition has been that we have played opposition who don’t take their chances. We presented Östersubds with a few at The Emirates, CSKA it a fair few at The Emirates and both in the home and away leg we have Milan chances. The home game against Atleti was a match between defence and attack because of the sending off, but that won’t be the case tonight.
There are a few people who have said this game is finely balanced because Arsenal can’t defend and if Atleti sit back and don’t try to attack us then they risk the sucker punch. But I don’t see it as that. I see the tie firmly in Atletico’s hands because they have the ability, passing range and players to hold us back, then hit us on the counter with the likes of Griezmann and Costa, whilst players like Koke and Saul can find balls in behind even the best defences, which means our team should be a piece of cake to get in behind in comparison.
Arsène has confirmed Ospina will play in goal but with the amount of balls in behind that I’d be telling my players to take advantage of against this Arsenal team, I’d also be asking him to be playing as an auxiliary sweeper if I was in Arsène’s shoes. I’m not sure just how good Ospina is at that given he loves a bit of the old ‘stand behind the goal line when trying to save’ action, but at least his distribution is better than Cech’s, I guess…
The back line will be the usual four and I suspect we’ll have Xhaka in front of them, but I’d be giving Maitland-Niles a shot alongside him to give us a little more recovery pace than Wilshere offers. I’d play Ramsey further forward with Özil and Mkhitaryan and have Lacazette up top. That team gives us a little more to it than having Wilshere for Maitland-Niles, despite the fact Wilshere played well last week. We all love Jack, we all want the player back that he was eight years ago, but I just don’t see it any more and I worry that a game like today might pass him by from a physicality point of view. He seems to constantly tire in the second half of any game he plays and we will need all of the players who start to be ‘on it’ for the whole time they are on the pitch and with Wenger we know that he leaves it until the absolute latest he can before making a sub. So that’s why I wouldn’t be playing Jack tonight from the start.
But I think we all know what the team will be. If Mkhi is fully fit he starts in place of Welbeck and Wilshere will most likely make the team – probably in the more advanced three with Ramsey and Xhaka behind.
Madrid will probably look to deploy more of the dark arts that they are masters of and we bore witness to last week. They will kick, they will dive, they will wave imagery cards. It will be important for both Arsenal players and the referees not to be fooled by it and hopefully last week’s ref can set the same example tonight. Don’t bank on it though.
I’d love to see a fairytale ending. It would be a dream come true just to get to a European final, as I couldn’t get to the Champions League final and the UEFA and Cup Winners Cup finals I was too young to go. So for me this would represent something so special.
But I’m struggling to make a case for us this evening. All I have is hope. Hope that the players do more than they’ve done all season. Hope that they have the game of their lives. Hope that history can be written by Arsenal Football Club and hope that Wenger gets his last hurrah.
14 hours and we’ll know.
Up the Arsenal.