23rd February 2016: Memories of battles with Barcelona + pondering team selection

As we count down the hours to tonight’s glamorous game against the reigning European champions Barcelona, I’m engulfed by a mixture of emotions – part excitement, part sh*ting myself.

I guess I’ve always felt this way before facing them, ever since our first-ever meeting with the Catalans back in 1999, when I watched the game on TV at a friend’s house and saw Patrick Vieira try to do keepy-uppies on his own goal-line, only to succeed in gifting a goal to Luis Enrique, now Barcelona’s manager of course.

Kanu memorably equalized late on after (maybe before?) Gilles Grimandi was sent off to secure what felt at the time like a shock draw. A shock because that Barcelona team had two of the very best players in the world in their ranks at the time in Rivaldo and Luis Figo and I was anticipating a bit of a battering, despite us being reigning domestic Double holders.

So when they raced into a two-goal lead inside 15 minutes through a Rivaldo penalty and one from Enrique again in the reverse fixture at Wembley three weeks later, I wasn’t left wondering how we could manage a draw at their place only to unravel so quickly in London, I was expecting it. Dennis Bergkamp’s brilliant goal just before the interval gave us hope but second-half strikes by Figo and Phillip Cocu put them 4-1 up before Marc Overmars scored our second five minutes from time.

We then met them in the Champions League Final in 2006 and again I was expecting defeat because we had Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole just back from injury, Cesc Fabregas was still a teen and I was struggling to see how we’d contain the likes of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, even if we had our own world-beater in Thierry Henry in his prime and coming off the back of a hat-trick in his last game – Highbury stadium’s farewell fixture against Wigan.

Unless your’re too young, we all remember how that heart-breaking game panned out. We started the match looking like a team intent on blowing Barcelona away inside the first ten minutes with Henry testing Victor Valdes with a stinging long-range strike and nearly scoring again from close range before poor Jens Lehamnn was sent off.

Robert Pires was sadly sacrificed for Manuel Almunia but against the odds, we produced a heroic performance with ten men, taking the lead through Campbell’s header before it all went wrong in the last fifteen minutes and they scored twice to deny us our first-ever European Cup.

Then came the four most recent games and without going over the details, I was surprised to see us secure a draw and a win at home just as I had been back in 1999 at Camp Nou. But what I’ve reminded myself through this little trip down memory lane is that we have in it us to upset Barcelona.

Their players change, ours do too, but as always in football, in the end it comes down to the performance of both sets of players on the day, plus any unforeseen circumstances, like Jens’ dismissal. I feel like I’ve been overly defeatist in my expectation for tonight’s game, as many have, so it’s time to think positive with just a few hours remaining until kickoff.

In terms of how we’ll line-up, I guess the big call is who plays on the right. Our starting eleven against Hull at the weekend indicates it’ll be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but I do wonder if we’ll see something unexpected from Arsene, because he has previous for springing a selection surprise in a big European game, such as Yaya Sanogo against Bayern Munich in the recent past.

Although he’s just back from injury and has only had ten minutes against Leicester and 70 or so against Hull of competitive football in ten months, perhaps there’s a slim chance Danny Welbeck might start, either wide right or more radically, behind Olivier Giroud with Mesut Ozil shifted to the right. Now before anyone starts, let me explain.

When Real Madrid came to Old Trafford a few years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson tried to neuter Xabi Alonso’s tempo-setting passing by assigning Welbz to shadow him, rush him and harass him into ineffectiveness.

It worked too, until Nani was sent off very harshly for a raised foot and Real started to dominate. Anyway, the prospect of us doing similar tonight with Welbeck on Sergio Busquets crossed my mind, particularly seeing as the former United man looks remarkably match-fit and sharp for a player who’s been injured for so long and who’s pace and athleticism would prove a potent weapon in turning defence into attack very swiftly.

It’s left-field and unlikely but hey, it’s the best I could come up with in terms of predicting an Arsene curve-ball. Of course there are several other candidates who could conceivably start like Theo Walcott, Mohamed Elneny and Joel Campbell for instance but I think the best indicator for our team tonight was probably the team-sheet against Hull. Not long left to find out now.

See you tomorrow.


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