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
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.
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?
*Not a real statistic. But a fair indication, until I get some proper stats.
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.