Cesc Fabregas's late equalizer at the Emirates last week set up a scintillating Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Barcelona at he Nou Camp on Tuesday. Barcelona will be massive favourites, even without two-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic (out with a calf injury), especially since Arsenal lost the influential Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin to injury in that first tie. Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott are pegged as the key men going forward for Arsenal, who just need to grab a goal and then defend like hell. No mean feat, and one that might be made slightly more difficult a task by the absence of central defender William Gallas, also injured last week.
The aging Sol Campbell is likely to be charged with keeping the likes of Lionel Messi and Bojan at bay. Campbell, who has been beaten by cruise ships for pace on the turn recently, will need to pull something out of the bag if that's not to become a catastrophically unbalanced contest.
I'll be here to see how it all unfolds from 2.30 p.m. ET, and I would be delighted if you'd join me. And so long as my laptop doesn't combust, we're taking this thing interactive, so e-mail me your thoughts before, during and even after the game is going on, if you like, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Score predictions, game plans, what you're having for lunch ... are all welcome.
Tonight's meeting at the Nou Camp has taken on the complexion of a special football-themed episode of ER, there are so many players battling injury. Both managers have managed to put together a team, though you suspect Pep Guardiola had rather less trouble than Arsene Wenger. The Barca boss has gone with Andres Iniesta on the bench, with Rafael Marquez and Gabriel Milito in the centre of defense and Bojan Krkic preferred up front to Thierry Henry. Wenger has put Silvestre in next to Thomas Vermaelen, sparing Campbell a potentially embarrassing evening, and gone for a front line led by Nicklas Bendtner.
Barcelona: Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Rafael Marquez, Gabriel Milito, Eric Abidal, Xavi, Seydou Keita, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, Bojan Krkic, Pedro Rodriguez. Subs: Jose Manuel Pinto, Maxwell, Andres Iniesta, Yaya Toure, Andreu Fontas, Thierry Henry, Jeffren Suarez.
Arsenal: Manuel Almunia, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen, Mikael Silvestre, Gael Clichy, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott, Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner. Subs: Lukasz Fabianksi, Emmanuel Eboue, Armand Traore, Sol Campbell, Craig Eastmond, Fran Merida, Eduardo.
Theo Walcott's speed can help Arsenal inflict damage on Barcelona, reckons e-mailer Alexander Ghebremedhin, but for my money, he'll lack the element of surprise tonight that was so crucial to the impact of his appearance last week. Guardiola says "He's faster than our whole team put together", but Barcelona will at least anticipate a few breakneck runs, and steward the final third accordingly.
"I would actually prefer Henry to play," writes Jason Gold, a Barca fan in Manhattan. "I still believe that he is one of those rare strikers who forces the opposing defense to keep a guy on him at all times. I know that Henry is showing his age and that Krkic is in spree form, but in a game of this magnitude, I'd still prefer to go with 'old reliable' to offset the dramatic change in their line-up." Who can resist Bojan, though, when he can score two goals like he did against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday?
Foolishly buoyed by my successful prediction of a draw last Wednesday (yes yes, I said 1-1 not 2-2, a trifling matter!), I'm inviting your score predictions (e-mail me at the address up there). Twitterers today have unanimously gone for a Barcelona victory of anything up to 8-0. I've plumped for 3-1, but won't be held liable for any gambling losses inflicted as a result.
"Okay, you mentioned predictions, game plans, and lunch, but I will instead combine them all into one," says Guy Sodano. "I predict that I will either be celebrating Arsenal's ugly but hard-fought victory by a single goal or drowning my sorrows to their ugly but narrow defeat. The Professor will field a line-up that will be lauded in the press as brilliant and far-reaching or eviscerated as short-sighted and obtuse. Lunch? I will skip lunch to enhance the buzz I experience during this evenings' celebration or mourning."
There's going to be some drinking, there, let me tell you. "As an Arsenal fan ... I'm hoping for a great game with a win for the Gunners," says Dominic R, sounding almost sheepish. "What I'd also like to see is another great game from Walcott. I honestly believe that with an inspired performance today, he should be a lock for the England team in the WC. Even if he's only used as a sub this summer, he's such a fantastic change of pace player, and could make the difference." Indeed. But how will he fare from the off tonight?
Kickoff: The referee leads the teams out, complete with his own mini-mascot so that he doesn't feel left out, and they all sway with pride as the Champions League theme music blasts out of the speakers. At least, that's what Uefa would like to think. Arsenal are in white shirts and black shorts, and I don't need to tell you what strip Barcelona are in. "The Gunners were lucky to make it out of London with a 2-2, and now without their captain it will be a miracle for them to pull it out," says Nick Tiernan. "But I'm hoping." Barca get the game underway, so let's see ...
2': The central Arsenal tactic appears, unsurprisingly, to be: get the ball to Walcott. Plan B is: get the damn ball to Walcott.
4': Barcelona float forwards looking as menacing as it's possible to look while floating, and stroke the ball in to Xavi, whose backheel trundles wide. Barca are having most of the ball, and Messi follows that up by drawing a full-stretch save from Almunia.
7': Marquez flattens Rosicky on the edge of the D, but the referee waves away his dazed call for a free kick. Arsenal's tilts towards goal are few and disjointed, and its attempts to deal with Xavi amount to common assault.
10': Barcelona is still enjoying most of the possession, but so far only have a blast wide on the turn from Pedro to show for it in the last few minutes. "3-1 Barca," predicts Daniel Bokol. "Turkey sandwich and water." Are they on the bench? Ahem.
13': Messi plants a curled shot just over the bar and onto the top of the net, which ripples to send fans at the other end of the stadium into short-lived ecstacy. Still 95 percent* Barcelona so far.
*Not a real statistic. But a fair indication, until I get some proper stats.
16': "Did they take Walcott off after one minute?" says Derek Edwards. "I think he must have gone for a wee." Let's hope he's back soon, because Nasri looks like he's done something nasty to his ankle taking on Milito.
18: GOAL! Arsenal 1-0 Barcelona. Bendtner has scored! After some hefty old tussles in midfield, Arsenal somehow emerge from the midfield, and a quick pass out to Walcott helps him jump the offside. His pass across goal was on the ropey end of rubbish, but Bendtner gets a leg to it and pokes home Valdes's parry. Barca looks pretty stunned by that.
20': GOAL! Barcelona 1-1 Arsenal How? What? Did that really happen? Is that even possible? Messi digs a shot out with Silvestre and Vermaelen bearing down on him and absolutely hammers it beyond Almunia, who can afford to give his defenders a bemused look.
23': Barca has a penalty shout after Silvestre tangles with Bojan on the left, but the referee's not interested. Having just seen two goals in three minutes from open play, who can blame him for wanting them to do it the hard way. "That is the living, breathing definition of against the run of play", says Ben Sicnolf, still recovering from Arsenal's goal.
28': Barcelona have had 74 percent of possession, Michael Edgerley tells me, so I wasn't far off. They've settled back onto the ball now, and are poking towards Almunia's box as a boy with a stick goes at a beehive.
30': Messi eludes the outstretched legs of Sagna and Diaby before being dispossessed by Denilson, but the coming together of the two players draws a soft free kick for Barca. It's barely midway into Arsenal's half, but that doesn't stop Alves having a crack. Comfortable take for Almunia.
34': Arsenal are still struggling to come to terms with Xavi, but they're just about doing enough to suggest that Barca won't be comfortable without a two-goal lead.
36': GOAL! Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal. Messi gets another! Barca press towards the byline, and when Silvestre intercepts Abidal's weak cross, Pedro flicks it into Messi's path as he ghosts in behind the play. Almunia's sprawled on the deck again without a hope of getting to it.
39': Sagna and Walcott combine on the right for Arsenal, but it's a half-hearted effort to get past Abidal, who's having none of it.
42': GOAL! Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal. Messi does it again! "Messi... nothing more needs to be said", insists Brandon Becker, giving me little else to do. Oh alright, then. Released by Abidal, Messi races towards Almunia chased by Arsenal's back line, who have no hope of catching him before he dinks it delicately over Almunia.
45': Arsenal revert to hacking lumps out of Barca's midfield in much the same fashion that would have Wenger cursing the likes of Stoke City ... Barcelona will go into the break 3-1 up and with Messi threatening to score another hat trick in the second half if we're lucky.
Halftime musings: "Arsenal's defense is much too weak at the moment to stop Barca's attacks," says Adan Hernandez. The fact that they are missing so many key players is killing, most notably the absence of Cesc Fabregas. He is the outright leader of the team and he seamlessly makes things happen on offense." That's true, but I think the loss of Alex Song has played a bigger part in Arsenal's inability to cope with Messi and Xavi, who've pulled all the strings so far.
Second half: Arsenal kick us off for the remaining 45 minutes. "This is when the 'miracle' part comes in," whispers Nick Tiernan, hoping against blind hope.
47': Barcelona start the half much as itfinished the last, looking thoroughly untroubled on the ball, and easily reclaiming possession whenever an Arsenal player has the bare-faced cheek to try and rob them of it.
50': "Did I get it right that Messi scored all 3 goals so far?" asks Freddie Baby. He has, Mr Baby, and he might have added another, had Alves produced a better ball from wide on the right.
53': "When it's all said and done, I think he's top-10 all-time player," says Parrish Walton of Messi, who has approximately 78.4 percent of the world's population drooling at this very moment. Abidal comes off for Maxwell.
56': Bojan makes way for Yaya Toure, a curiously defensive move from Guardiola, though El Classico looms on the horizon for Barca.
59': Apologies for the delay in the last couple of updates, this internet business isn't all it's cracked up to be. Fortunately, you've missed almost nothing of note -- I say almost, because Bendtner found himself in possession inside the box but was quickly dealt with by Milito. It may well have saved him the indignity of blazing over the bar in any case, if his first touch was anything to go by.
63': Arsenal have enjoyed an unprecedented 30 percent possession in the last 60 seconds, but it ends with a loose ball into touch. Eboue comes on for Silvestre.
68': Eboue slaps Sergio in the face as the Barca man attempts to halt his gallop over the halfway line, but it's all handled in a reassuringly grown-up fashion by the referee. After the vim and vigor of the first half, this second tastes a bit like the abandoned, half-drunk glass of wine you slurp back at the end of the night. Rosicky's just wellied a shot well over the bar, and that's one of the highlights of the last 10 minutes.
71': "Arsenal will go through if they can just manage a draw," Ronnie tells me, clutching frantically at a handful of straws. Barcelona have had 62 percent of possession overall, and would have added a fourth goal if Pedro's chip, from Messi's quick free kick, hadn't sailed wide.
73': Superb ball in from the left from Clichy, bang onto the head of Bendtner, who watches his header rebound off the post and away to safety. Rosicky's gone off, and Eduardo's come on.
75': Barcelona's attacking display will rightly be lauded in tomorrow's papers, but their commitment to tracking back -- particularly from responsible for losing possession in the first place -- has stopped Arsenal's build-up play superbly tonight. And when Clichy does find a way through, he wastes the opportunity by shooting from 25 yards.
79': "The loss of Alex Song has greatly affected Arsenal's defense," agrees Adan Hernandez. "But how many teams can say that they have a defense that will shut down a player like Messi?" Well exactly -- the semifinal encounter with Jose Mourinho's Internazionale looks a beguiling one.
81': "I just made a bet with a co-worker that we'll see a repeat of last week's game and Arsenal will pull a surprise tie yet again, which will put them through," says the dubiously-titled Mr Handsome. "You see that happening at all?" Having given it careful thought and considera- no. No.
84': Messi has the crowd in raptures again after drifting into the box and turning Vermaelen before being halted by Sagna. There might be a last goal in this for Barca yet.
86': Pedro comes off for Iniesta, who gets the biggest cheer of the night. Not entirely convinced of the usefulness of bringing him on with five minutes remaining, but I bow to your greater wisdom, Pep.
87': GOAL! Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal. Messi has scored yet another! Eboue plays Messi onside, the wee man evades Vermaelen, reclaims Almunia's parry after his first shot, and carefully plays the ball through the space between Almunia's widely planted feet. Admit it, you've got a crush on him.
90': There's a festival atmosphere inside the Nou Camp, which will enjoy three minutes of added time.
Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks: The referee draws this rather fabulous evening's football to a close, sending Arsenal home empty-handed and Barcelona into a semifinal tie with Internazionale. Thanks for your company. See you tomorrow night for Manchester United's second-leg against Bayern Munich.
It's all over. Barcelona wins 4-1.