The biggest game of Arsenal’s history, not just the season, takes place on Wednesday. There I knew there was a decent variant to that theme. Many pundits believe that this is the purists final and this could well be true but is dependent upon two factors. Firstly, which players will be beset by nerves; the more that suffer, the less of a spectacle. Secondly, which Arsenal will turn up? If it is the variety that played in both matches against Madrid and Juventus then it will be a good game. If it is the same as the second leg in Villarreal or Manchester United in last seasons FA Cup final then, dear viewer, you are well and truly stuffed if you expect a scintillating final. Personally, I believe in order to win, it is the former that needs to be in Paris but then I am much less concerned about the match, more the result. It is after all the premiere trophy in European football, a chance for the victors to be crowned “Champions Of Europe”.
To suggest that Arsenal are the underdogs is being unkind to underdogs. I would go as far to put forward the view that they are less of a favourite to win than Liverpool were last season. That is not saying we are poorer than they were, more that Barcelona are perceived as being a far better team than Milan. But before you say that this is defeatist claptrap, I believe Arsenal can win. Note I said “can” not “will”.
I will say that I have changed my mind from a few days ago about the composition of Arsenal’s starting XI. In order to win, I would start with:
Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Hleb,Gilberto, Fabregas, Ljungberg; Pires; Henry
The main change I have made is Pires for Reyes as despite the Frenchman’s inconsistency, he gives the team better balance than Reyes, despite the latters greater pace. This was apparent in the matches against Villarreal. The other switch is to move Hleb to the right and Freddie to the left. Hleb plays equally well whichever side but Ljungberg has played more on the left for Sweden and with a record of scoring twenty goals in the last thirty internationals. A somewhat better strike rate than he has managed for Arsenal this season, two goals in thirty six appearances is not a record to strike fear into opponents. Reyes would be a great substitute to throw into the fray, his pace would be particularly telling in the latter stages. Coming on against Sunderland, he proved that with two goals in the final twenty minutes. Yes, I know the Wearsiders were not strong opposition but tired players are tired players no matter what their qualities when at their peak.
From the reports that I have read, the expect Barcelona line-up will be:
Valdes; Oleguer, Puyol, Marquez, van Bronckhorst; Iniesta, Deco, van Bommel; Giuly, Eto’o, Ronaldinho
There are three or four options on this line up. Firstly, Belletti may replace Oleguer on the right hand side of defence. The Brazilian is far quicker going forward, more of Cicinho than Cafu whilst neither is particularly strong defensively. This may be why Reyes gets picked ahead of Pires; he would certainly be able to take both of these on for pace and win. A more unlikely change is Silvinho for van Bronckhorst on the left. I suspect the Dutchman will get the nod as he seems stronger defensively.
In midfield, Xavi’s return to fitness is a problem of the nice kind for Rijkaard. It is a straight choice between Xavi and Iniesta. The latter has played well in the formers absence and may be the deciding factor. Up front, Giuly could be swapped for Larsson although I suspect the latter will be a substitute rather than starting. Certainly the Swede would pose a greater threat in the area than Giuly but he does not have the same level of pace.
The key will be stopping the space behind the defence being exploited. There is no point in man marking Ronaldinho but that does not mean the supply of the ball to him should not be cut off. Also, they need to minimise the amount of time he spends cutting inside – this is where he is most dangerous. Deco presents a different problem. He will play deeper, pass well and be energetic in supporting the attacks. It is important that Fabregas and Gilberto are tight on him, a suspect temperament means that he can become frustrated if things do not work as he planned.
Defensively, they are not as strong as Italian teams. It is therefore important that Arsenal do not leave too much space between Henry and the midfield. If this happens, two things occur. Firstly there is no outlet for the defence and no momentum in attack which means little opportunity to score. Secondly, possession will be surrendered too cheaply and one thing that Barca are very good at is retaining the ball. See, this tactical lark is easy.
Anyway I’m off back to Championship Manager to win the Champions League for the fourth season running so here are Today’s Tunes, from The Hideaway Club Classics compilation, opening with Little Willie John – Don’t Play With Love. I profess to knowing little about the man, if you will pardon the pun. However, the tracks that I have heard show what an incredible voice he had. A good biography can be found at Shades Of Blue. Next up is the incomparable Ray Charles with The Train.