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Arsenal vs. Barça: a purists’ treat

The most tantalising of this year’s Champions League quarter-finals pits Europe’s greatest exponents of the beautiful game against each other.


Will Cesc Fàbregas soon return to his boyhood club, Barcelona?

For football purists, the Champions League quarter-final between Arsenal and Barcelona represents all that European competition should be: two teams that play an aesthetic passing game and who do not rely on extravagance in the transfer market to bolster their chances of continental glory.

The tantalizing prospect of the Premier League and La Liga’s silkiest sides going toe-to-toe for a semi-final place presents a tactical dilemma for the managers, Arsène Wenger and Pep Guardiola. Arsenal and Barcelona’s playing styles are very similar and it is unlikely that either coach will lean toward over-caution in the first leg. Barça will play to win, and Arsenal will not eschew their own attacking philosophy to contain their opponent. It is not in the ethos of either club, and neither do the teams have the playing staff to generate purely defensive artifice.

Both sides are notable for the average size of their players, with few on either side exceeding the six-foot mark. While this precludes over-reliance on long ball tactics and foments the intricate passing style for which Arsenal and Barcelona are lauded, both managers will be putting their charges through some extra paces at set pieces with Nicklas Bendtner –the unlikely scorer of a hat-trick against Porto in the previous round– and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both offering an unsettling presence in the opposing penalty area. The Sweden striker scored the only goal in Barça’s 1-0 victory at Mallorca at the weekend from a loose ball resulting from a corner.

But there is no reason why Wenger and Guardiola should stray from the game plan that has served both so well this season and whoever triumphs the victory will be that much sweeter for having beaten the other at his own game. Andrés Iniesta’s leg injury is a significant blow to Barcelona, but the emergence of Pedro Rodríguez and Jeffren allowed Guardiola to leave Xavi and Leo Messi on the bench against Mallorca – a team that had lost only once at home all season. In Messi, Barcelona has the best player in the world at present, and stopping his artful individual runs will be Wenger’s key concern. Man-marking the Argentinean has been proved time and again to be folly.

“At Arsenal, I have never man-marked,” said Wenger on Arsenal’s official website of the encounter. “Once you start to man-mark one, it can work but in exceptional teams you have two or three you have to man-mark and then you have to go to a system where you could create your own problems just by following somebody everywhere.”

Shackling Messi

In Sol Campbell and Thomas Vermaelen the French schemer has a blend of pace and experience in the centre of his defence, but back fours that have managed to keep Messi shackled this season are a rare breed. La Liga’s top scorer will also fancy his chances against Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, who shares a single trait with his opposite number and La Liga’s least-breached custodian Víctor Valdés: nationality.

A half-serious campaign last year to persuade Almunia to apply for British citizenship to keep goal for England fell deafeningly silent after a string of high-profile blunders and the Spaniard is widely regarded in England as the poorest “big four” goalkeeper in some time. While Valdés has never been capped by Spain, a country with a huge pool of talent in that position, Almunia is probably not even in the top 10 when Spain coach Vicente del Bosque bends his mind to a third-choice ‘keeper for the World Cup.

One Spaniard who has attracted the attention of the football world at Arsenal is Cesc Fàbregas. The former Barcelona youth team player now captains the Gunners and his predecessor in that particular role speaks highly of Xavi and Iniesta’s understudy at international level.

“If you talk about Arsenal, you have to talk about Cesc,” said Thierry Henry, who will play against his old club for the first time since his €24-million transfer in 2007 if selected over the two legs. “It doesn’t surprise me what he can do. I played with him and I know what he can do, as do the people at Barça. He is very intelligent and has been playing well for many years.” However, there is a chance that a knee injury sustained against Birmingham could rule Fabregas out of the first match, depriving it of one of its most intriguing sub-plots.

Henry captained the team that lost the 2006 final to Barcelona, the last time the two sides locked horns. Their only previous acquaintance was in the group stage of the competition in 1999, with Barça winning 4-2 at Highbury and the return match at Camp Nou ending in a 1-1 draw. Those three matches produced 11 goals, and a scoreless draw at the Emirates or in Catalonia would be a surprising result.

Guardiola: a future Gunner?

Adding an extra frisson to the encounter is a persistent rumour that Fàbregas will return to Barcelona, and fresher speculation that Guardiola, with 18 months’ worth of experience under his belt, is the natural successor to Wenger at Arsenal, where Le Professeur has been at the helm for 13 years. Arsenal has not won a trophy in five seasons and Barcelona’s six-cup haul last season must have turned Fàbregas’ head. Xavi is 30 and Barcelona’s lengthy association with Arsenal’s captain is not purely a matter of regional pride, Wenger having purloined the midfielder from Barça’s La Masia youth academy when he was a teenager. Former Gunners manager George Graham, the overseer of the notorious “boring” Arsenal that won two leagues, an FA Cup, two League Cups and a Cup Winner’s Cup during his tenure, once said of Wenger’s philosophy: “Wenger’s priority is not to win trophies, it is the style of play.”

While both Wenger and Guardiola would agree, the Frenchman would relish the chance to end the club’s silverware hiatus at the expense of his managerial doppelganger.

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Published: Mar 29 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Arsenal vs. Barça: a purists’ treat”

  1. La Liga’s two silkiest sides -eh???

    Well if Aersenal lose it´ll be because they had to play against 22 players

  2. Arsenal,I meant-typo before

  3. Hi I'm a Oldham supporter personally but I do respect Arsenal's football. Thanks on the post and all the best this season.

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