Fear is only as deep as the mind allows
I’ll keep it brief. You’ve bought all the papers, you’ve been refreshing page 302 on teletext 18 times a day, you’ve chatted to the tea lady at work about the relative merits of Bobby over Reyes and your sphincter is probably operating on the, "5p – 50p – 5p - 50p" scale. Yes, it’s the Champions League final. I’ll be watching it in my lucky seat surrounded by people speaking French. Yes, in the flat with 2 French speaking housemates.
The hype has been in full flow since the, frankly amazing, end of the season. Barcelona have played a game in between that fateful day but it was literally a reserve team. The result and the performance will have absolutely no bearing on the game today. So what will? Well, for me the two teams are very evenly matched. Arsenal have the edge on pace, Barcelona have it on technique. Both teams play very fluidly with a flexible formation allowing for rotation between positions and solidity in defence.
Barcelona will line up as they have played every game this season; the formation that Chelsea aspire to enact is actually played to perfection in Catalonia. The 4-3-3 formation relies on heavy support from the wide players. Tonight that will be Ronaldinho & Giuly, the young genius Messi reduced to a role on the substitutes bench after two months on the sidelines. Very possibly Chelsea’s best contribution to the Champions League this year. The ridiculously good Eto’o will start at the pinnacle of the front three but expect to see rotation, especially with Ronaldinho if the Brazilian is becoming marginalized or Eboue begins to dominate that flank. Eto’o is more reliable defensively and is pretty skilful on the wing as well.
The midfield triumvirate are essentially grafters with the occasional moment of brilliance / diving from Deco. He’s not had a great season according to most reports but his defensive game is drilled into him from his days at Porto and alongside Iniesta and Van Bommel the central midfield will be congested and hard fought. Van Bommel is outrageously professional, willing to dive, kick, con the ref and foul in order to win the game. Iniesta is a workhorse, like Gilberto, he will cover unseen yards with the intention of closing up spaces for the off the ball runners.
If the pre match report about their attack is a little frightening it’s time for the good news. Barcelona have one world class player in their back 5, Puyol. The others are try-hards, decent players but severely limited. The key may well be down the flanks. With Ronaldinho and Giuly perhaps a little lax in covering their full backs Arsenal should try and exploit any space there may be. Hleb will be key as I think he and Eboue can continue their fine link up to great effect.
This leads nicely into today’s hot topic. I’ve spent the last 2 hours debating the Pires / Reyes divide, it’s fair to say that opinions are split down the middle. Mike Ingham, from 5 live, thinks that playing Pires is a tacit admission that we are going to try and contain rather than attack. I’ll be honest, I think he’s wrong. Here’s why the decision to include Pires from the start is the right one:
1) Pires is our second biggest goal threat. That’s a fact & if Barcelona pre-occupy themselves with minding Henry there is no better player to take advantage of the extra space afforded.
2) If Arsenal are going to win TH14 is going to have to play very, very well. He plays best alongside his mate Robert Pires, they know each others game and hopefully – if it is to be a swansong for Bobby – then he’ll want to put on a show.
3) Remember 2004, remember how sexual the linkup used to be between Cole, Pires & Henry. Remember how Bobby scored over 15 goals. If that link up can kick in again then we are laughing.
4) The pace of Reyes will be much more useful at a later stage in the game, especially if it has become stretched.
The rest of the Arsenal team picks itself. Senderos is in the squad but I expect Sol’s recent game time to work in his favour, as with Cole over Flamini. As Cole himself says, it’s a dog eat dog world in football and it’s made Wenger’s life easier. Cole would always have played in my book as he’s literally one of the top 3 left backs in the world. Flamini will take his place on the bench, and like the legend he is – will be relied upon if needed.
I think the key area for us today is our right flank / their left. The game can be won or lost here. If Ronaldinho begins to pull the strings we will find it very hard to cope. If Hleb and Eboue can get into their stride and begin to challenge Gio on a regular basis I think we can actually dominate the game. As mentioned before midfield will be crucial, I actually think we have the best passer on display in Cesc and Gilberto has been the midfielder of the tournament for me.
And then of course we have the world’s best player – Thierry Henry. I can’t put into words how much this game means to him, to Arsenal FC and the fans. It’s immeasurable but football is made for people to take the great stages. This is a man who has played in World Cups and European championships. Who has visibly grown in the last few months as he begins to understand the responsibility of captain and who could win the cup on his own. If he plays well – we will always have a chance.
So onwards and upwards. The pressure, the real pressure, is off as we have secured a crack at the Champions League next season so we have nothing to fear. If we play as if we have nothing to lose then our pace and close control can always bring us rewards. Eboue the reputation destroyer is one to keep an eye on. Gentleman, let’s go. & Remember:
Fear is only as deep as the mind allows