Five-point plan to tame Messi & co
Published 16/02/2011 | 05:00
1 Press, press, press
It's a mantra Fabio Capello drums into his England players and one Gunners manager Arsene Wenger should also adopt. Arsenal, in fairness, have got better at this lately. They have paid more attention to the demands involved, closing down the opposition with more purpose and aggression. This will be crucial against Barcelona, particularly in the middle where Andres Iniesta and Xavi will try to dictate the tempo. Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song must therefore get tight to prevent their adversaries from bossing the game.
2 Keep a high line
As part of that pressing policy, Arsenal's back four must defend a fairly high line. If they do not, all that hard work in midfield will go to waste. Lionel Messi, Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa will be able to drop off and find pockets of space between the lines in which they can work their usual magic. Granted, it takes a certain amount of bravery to do this -- leaving so much room behind. But Arsenal, in their favour, do have pace in the full-back positions, where Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy must always be ready to come around and cover for their centre-halves should one of Barca's front men slip through the net.
3 Get in Messi's face
Lionel Messi, Arsenal's nemesis at the Nou Camp last season, must be handled with intelligence and care. When he drifts to the right, Clichy must get tight to prevent the little maestro from turning before showing him inside towards Song and Wilshere. It is the same principle when Messi wanders across the front line -- get in his face, and guide him towards supporting team-mates. It is not easy, admittedly, when you have got so many other dangers to worry about. But if Arsenal can show the defensive discipline required to keep Messi quiet, they will have gone some way towards taming the Barca beast.
4 Get the ball to Theo
Messi has already admitted that Theo Walcott scared the Catalans last year. The winger's blinding pace had them in a spin. It could be time to take advantage of that unease by playing Walcott from the start and feeding him at every turn. Wilshere and Fabregas should be releasing first-time balls behind Maxwell, who must come into this game with a bit of trepidation. Walcott, after all, holds a psychological edge. The 21-year-old has to make that count by getting on his bike straight away to give Maxwell a chasing down that right flank. It would get the crowd going and give everyone a lift.
Having shown too much respect last year, it's time for Arsenal to show some proper belief -- belief that they can beat this sensational side, rather than worry about reputations. That takes a lot of courage, not to mention top-class ability, but this richly talented Arsenal team are heading in the right direction. Wenger insists that his players are more confident this time. Will it be enough to get the job done? (© Daily Telegraph, London)