Like a cocktail of vinegar and vermouth, Arsenal’s last week has been decidedly mixed. A nerve wracking but immensely enjoyable last-gasp scuppering of Leicester meant that Arsenal hung on to the coattails of the title race, and the ensuing shot-and-save fest against Hull in the FA Cup gave them a frustrating replay during an already hectic schedule of matches. Tough fixtures in the league await, but before that: fix thy gaze on yon shimmering horizon, for a doom-mongering, fire-spitting, blood-guzzling hydra emerges from its Qatar Airways sponsored chrysalis.
Barcelona are a very, very good team. I think football is sometimes too preoccupied with peripheral nonsense to stop and appreciate just how good they are. If Pep Guardiola’s 2008 class of quintuple winning demigods weren’t enough, Luis Enrique’s current batch is zippier, more ruthless, less labyrinthine, and seem to have found the perfect balance between punch and possess. It frightens me that, barely half a decade after conquering the footballing world, Barcelona have already improved upon the side that did the conquering. It’s like a unicorn, already handcrafted by little angels in satin and silk, getting its horn re-sculpted in felt-tip diamonds.
What can you do? As Iniesta intricately pokes and paws his way around your midfield; as Neymar motors away from your full back, stops to let him catch up, and then motors away again; as Suarez outmuscles defenders twice his size, nutemegging ad nauseum; and as Messi slices into you with otherworldly footballing talent; what can you truly do? You can seethe in jealousy, sigh in awe, or scream in pain as Pique rabonas your keeper for 4-0. Watching Barcelona in full flow is a fiery marriage of creation and destruction, like a genocide set to Beethoven’s Fifth. You can’t bear to look yet you can’t look away.
To Arsenal’s credit, they have faced iterations of Barcelona’s current magic generation and always made a fist of it at the Emirates. In 2010, Almunia kept them in the game with some heavy-duty gloving before Walcott and Fabregas clawed back a two goal deficit. A year later, Arsenal felled the Catalonian Cassius Clay with grit, luck, and a glorious one-two riposte by van Persie and Arshavin. The Gunners came undone at the Nou Camp on both these occasions, but the two Emirates encounters still live in the memory as fun, fun nights.
Although not united by an underlying thread of decade-spanning footballing philosophy like Barcelona, Arsenal do have world-class-and-thereabouts players of their own, and they need to tick if it’s going to be anywhere close to an equal contest. Mesut Ozil, erstwhile Madrid’s silky surgeon with midfield-splitting spatula, Alexis Sanchez, hitherto Barcelona’s Chilean butcher with roar and more, Petr Cech, helmeted herculean who has never let Messi score past him, and Laurent Koscielny, who has past experience in shepherding Barca sprites into woodland prisons. All of them firing together is what mathematicians would call a ‘necessary but not sufficient’ condition.
What are the other necessary conditions?
- Positional discipline across the board. If a full back is venturing forward, Coquelin has to unfailingly cover that flank; Ramsey has to prioritize jostling in central midfield over willy-nilly forward runs; the attackers have to exhibit coordination in pressing from the front (Bendtner’s goal at Nou Camp in 2010 and fluffed chance in 2011 both stemmed from an attacking press); and Flamini (bless his soul and genuine service) needs to be firmly ensconced in the dugout.
- Being clinical with the chances we get. Worse Arsenal sides than this one have created chances against Barcelona, but the team is on a particularly profligate run off late. Six goals in the last seven games; Luis Suarez alone has three hat-tricks in his last nine games in comparison. The deservedly lauded MSN trio has contributed 91 goals and 43 assists so far this season. One or more of them is bound to score against Arsenal on Tuesday. It becomes doubly important that Arsenal make their chances count. So if that ball goes inches wide and you have your head in your hands, Olivier, no tiramisu for you.
- Big, hairy, sweaty metric tonnes of luck. Cup ties, especially when two top teams are involved (haha), so often hinge on the little variables and vagaries, miniscule weighing scales plopping one way or the other to cumulatively decide a team’s fate. Penalties hitting the bar, refs missing or ignoring tackles in the box, a ricochet off the defender going the wrong side of the post, et cetera. Arsenal’s 2-0 over Bayern earlier this season had an entire gamut of weighing scales: Thiago shooting straight at Cech in the first half, Muller’s second half shot going inches wide, the ref missing Giroud’s handball for Arsenal’s goal, and Lewandowski hitting an airshot after going clean through in the last minute. Oh, Lord of the Scales, name your sacrifice.
All said and done, whether it’s a trouncing or a miracle, let’s enjoy this night. Pitting ourselves against one of the best teams in the world (and the cup holders) in Europe’s premier cup competition, contributing to an occasion that will be viewed from Leicester Square to Lutyens Delhi, having the footballing world’s eye turned towards you for better or for worse. These are the sort of nights no other competition in European football can throw up, and for all my ennui about Arsenal’s chances in the Champions League, I’m quite happy to be the right side of the gate. Better to lose against Barcelona on a Wednesday night of fiery glory than to limp to victory (or defeat?) against Midtjylland on a soporific Thursday. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself when the cavalry is charging towards Mertesacker.
So soak in the night, gooners. Get ready to soak in some punches too.