Sport Soccer

Friday 23 February 2018

Wenger keeps faith as Gunners aim for miracle

Barcelona's Thierry Henry controls the ball during a training session at the Nou Camp ahead of the visit of Arsenal tonight
Barcelona's Thierry Henry controls the ball during a training session at the Nou Camp ahead of the visit of Arsenal tonight

Henry Winter in Barcelona

FOOTBALL teams are always a work in progress, rather like the Sagrada Familia here, and Arsenal arrived last night with everybody insisting Arsene Wenger's side are far from the finished article, particularly in the absence of such luminaries as Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Andrei Arshavin, William Gallas and Alex Song.

Football teams invariably suffer from injuries and suspensions yet some do overturn the odds, admittedly stacked heavily against Wenger's depleted forces in the passion pit that is the Nou Camp this evening.

If Arsenal are to achieve one of the greatest results in their European history, they must first gain possession -- rarely a simple task when the dexterous duo Xavi and Lionel Messi are in opposition -- and then attack at speed.

Arsenal must put the racing pigeons among the Catalans. When Liverpool visited three years ago, Rafael Benitez successfully exposed Barcelona's centre-halves by unleashing Craig Bellamy like a spiky pebble from a catapult.

With Pep Guardiola's first-choice pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol suspended tonight, Wenger must work a route past Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez. Reminded yesterday of Benitez's tactics, and asked whether this was an occasion for plugging into the electric current that is Theo Walcott, Wenger preferred to talk of others.

"You would be surprised at how quick Nicklas Bendtner is,'' said Wenger. "He's much quicker than you think if you look at his times, which are quite impressive.

"We have pace everywhere. Emmanuel Eboue has pace. Tomas Rosicky has pace.''

With the excellent Samir Nasri occupying the Fabregas role behind Bendtner, Walcott could be held back until the second half and even with his problem of not producing an end-product to match his potential, Barcelona coach Guardiola is wary of speed killing his Champions League hopes.

"He's so quick, he's faster than our whole team put together -- he could not even be stopped by a gun," said Guardiola who also declared to an open-mouthed Spanish media that Walcott could run the 100 metres in 10.37 seconds.

Walcott arrived at the Nou Camp last night to clarify that he had not been timed over that distance since he was 14, when he clocked 11.5 seconds, though he did say that Guardiola's estimation was probably about right. It is also common knowledge that he recently lowered Thierry Henry's all-time Arsenal record over 40 metres to 4.70 seconds.


So how do you combat such pace? For a Barcelona team who are so masterful at recycling possession, the answer is always the same.

"You don't let them have the ball," Guardiola said.

Whether Walcott starts or not will depend if Rosicky recovers from his painful meeting with Wolves captain Karl Henry.

"When you look at his calf, you can see the tackle of Henry was not as innocent as it looked,'' observed Wenger of an impact that left four stud marks, according to Arsenal.

If Walcott does start, Wenger would seize a psychological edge, particularly if he used him through the middle, allowing the young flier to race either side of defenders. Judging by the respectful reception for the England winger on landing at El Prat yesterday evening, Catalonia is well aware of the menace lurking in Walcott's boots.

England manager Fabio Capello has not made the journey, preferring to focus on tomorrow's game at Old Trafford, but his assistant Franco Baldini will be joining Walcott's proud parents in the steepling stands of this footballing Sagrada Familia.

Walcott does not fear anyone and would not be restricted by the awe that tempered Arsenal's movement in the first half of the first leg, the hosts responding only when Walcott arrived to help engineer a recovery to 2-2.

"We have to take into account the psychological part,'' acknowledged Wenger, "and then get tighter in our marking.''

Tighter to Xavi, tighter to Messi and certainly tight to Bojan, who should fill in for the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"Bojan is very mobile, tricky, short with quick feet and that makes him different and special,'' said Wenger.

The Arsenal manager was at his most eloquently defiant, voicing his admiration for Guardiola's players but also his faith in his young side.

"Barcelona are the best team in Europe and we have to show we can beat them,'' Wenger said.

"We know we have to turn up with 120pc commitment but also intelligence. I don't expect Barcelona to be scared.

"They are the best team we have faced because they played at a higher pace collectively.

"I don't think we have ever been dominated so much at home. There was the psychological influence of us being so used to having the ball suddenly not having the ball.

"We were a little bit victims of the reputation of Barcelona. They have done it, we have not, so in our heads they were very big.

"We were a bit inhibited in the first part of the game and the second half was much more balanced, when we came out and played at our level. At 2-0 down I felt we needed a miracle but I always had hope. I know this team will never give up.

"This team has such a great mental strength they can fight against the odds anywhere in the world. We have won away everywhere in Europe (from Madrid to Milan).

"Barcelona is a place where we have not done it and there is no better opportunity than now. Life is about grabbing opportunities.

"This team can make history by grabbing the opportunity and I know they will fight for it. The quality of Barcelona gives me an extra excitement because we can all expect a good game.

"The first game was very promising and responded to people's expectations.

"People are waiting with excitement because they know they'll see another interesting game.

"The players have come back from the dead once and can do it again. They know they escaped being out of the competition. It's Easter, you know, a time of resurrection. The late comebacks this season show this team has character.

"We were written off before the season started but there are five games to go in the Premier League and we are still in there. In the Champions League it's the same. We will give a good game to Barcelona. The tie is more balanced than the impression people got.

"We have to be very disciplined but not to hide when we have the ball.

"What gives me belief is the quality of players I still have on the pitch.

"Nasri will be one of the leaders of the game. Nasri has developed very well this season, step by step.

"Denilson is coming back very strong. Abou Diaby has become a very important player in our squad as well.

"Bendtner is important because he gives us something different. He has size, he is good in the air, on crosses you have hope with him.

"We always want to play football but when people told us 'you have no plan B' (without Van Persie) he gives us an option in the air we didn't have.

"I've never had so many injuries before such a big game, but that is why football is never boring,'' added Wenger.

It will not be tonight, not on such a broad, long pitch that, for all Wenger's hopes, will test Arsenal's resilience.

Barcelona v Arsenal,

Live, TV3, Sky Sports 2, 7.45

Irish Independent

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