Today marks the start of the build up to Real Madrid, two matches that decide whether Arsenal’s season sinks or swims. It is also a polarisation of nationalities in my household, with La Senora being Spanish and happy to support anything Spanish, even tiddlywinks. She did try to extend this to Spanish speaking countries but having been told to “F*** off out of my sight” when she half jokingly cheered the Argentinean team onto the pitch during the England match at France 1998, she has now limited this to Spain. Fortunately, her family hail from Barcelona so have no interest in Real Madrid other than wanting them to fail abysmally.
Ordinarily this would be a chance to gloat over victories past or cower behind glorious failures but I can’t even do that with the two teams never having met in a competitive match. In the Champions League and its predecessor, Real have a mixed record against English sides. The mix is heavily in their favour; of the seven previous ties they have a record of 5 aggregate wins to 2 defeats, one of which was to Alan Kennedy’s goal in the 1981 Final in Paris. Since then they have met Manchester United twice in the Quarter Finals and Leeds in the Group Stages, winning all three aggregate scores. The omens are not good on this front as Arsenal’s record against Spanish teams is appalling. Only Celta Vigo have been knocked out of this competition by The Gunners, with Real Mallorca the only other team beaten on “aggregate” in the Group Stages. Barcelona, Deportivo and Valencia (twice) have had the better of Arsenal over the two matches in Group and Knock Out phases.
Current form is no better for Wenger’s men. Real have not been beaten in 11 Primera Division matches (10 wins and 1 draw – including 6 wins on the bounce) and whilst the opposition has not been the strongest in the world, the Madrilenos can only beat the opponents put in front of them. The one fly, extra large size, in this ointment was an astounding 1 – 6 reverse in Zaragoza a couple of weeks ago. They almost rectified this is the second leg, leading 3 – 0 with less than 15 minutes gone. And therein is Madrid’s Achilles heel. The passion and verve with which they played that 15-minute spell was probably their best all season, perhaps even for 18 months. And then they started to think about their game that resulted in one more goal in the remaining 75 minutes of the match and an exit on aggregate. The resultant media attention accused their caretaker coach, Lopez Caro, of thinking too much about the rest of the match and over coaching the players from the touchline. If Arsenal can make them think about what they have to do by keeping the game tight then there is a strong chance of getting a good result. But keeping it tight is something that Arsenal has not been particularly good at in recent times.
The last 11 league games have proven that this season, Arsenal are consistently inconsistent. 4 defeats, 3 draws and 4 victories will only tell the Madrid scouts that we have not been the same side as in previous seasons. Indeed, it says it all when your best win of 7 – 0 is followed by a 0 – 1 defeat at a team who were not completely out of the relegation dogfight at the time of the match. Where the warning bells must be ringing is the inability to keep a clean sheet. During this run, the defence has shut out the opposition 6 times. More pertinently, only one of these has come in the last 4 games. At the same time however, the forward line has been misfiring. In this run of matches, they have failed to score in 5 of them. Indeed, if you take the 7 scored against Middlesbrough out of the equation, the 4 of the remaining games have only yielded 6 goals. The other match was at home the 4 – 0 drubbing of Portsmouth.
For some reason though the European campaign has been considerably better than previous years. Whilst the opposition in the Group Stages was arguably the weakest that we have ever faced, our league form at that time was less than sparkling. Prior to the Thun match at Highbury, defeats had already been registered against Chelsea (twice) and Middlesbrough. The trip to Prague was preceded by defeat at West Bromwich whilst the visit of Ajax to Highbury was in a run of three consecutive defeats to Chelsea (again), Newcastle and Bolton. The relevance of this is that nothing should be read into our recent league form. The major worry is that the team Wenger fields is facing it’s toughest test – surely even the players believe going to the Bernabeu is more intimidating than Anfield – and contains a high number of youngsters. The key player may yet turn out not to be Henry but Lehmann. If he can maintain the level of performance he produced against Liverpool then there is hope of returning to Highbury with a result that can be worked with. And what of the man himself? Henry owes the club and its supporters a big performance. Too often this season he has been missing in action. Tomorrow is the perfect time to produce his match of the season so far and if he feels so inclined, add another couple of million to his market value.
The team news emanating from the respective countries media is contradictory. The Spanish press are reporting that Reyes has recovered and will play in the match whilst the UK press report he is unlikely to feature at all. At this point, you would expect to be able to refer to the clubs website to find out the truth but unfortunately, Wenger’s reign has signalled an economy with the facts about fitness and in the past many players have returned sooner than expected from injury. Interestingly, www.physioroom.com is reporting that Cole and Clichy are both pencilled in as returning on Saturday that indicates that at least one of them could start in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Given that Beckham is the driving force for the Madrid attacks on the right hand side, pace is not going to be an issue unless Cicinho plays instead of Salgado. The Brazilian has a lot of attacking ability but leaves gaps when careering forward to the extent that Beckham has to occupy the fullback berth in these times. Given Henry’s predilection to drift out to the Left side of attack, this would leave Arsenal plenty to exploit given a chance to do so.
As for the result, I struggle to find many straws to grasp at. The only thing that keeps me going is my unfailing optimism that Arsenal will win every game they play – no wonder defeat hurts. If the team puts in a performance as they did against Bayern at the same stage of the competition last season, the tie could well be over before half time on Tuesday. The brutal reality is that the team will have to put in the best performance of the season so far to even come away with a decent result.
Todays tunes are an acoustic set from a couple of weeks ago, broadcast on the Mark Lamarr show on Radio 2: