Well, here we are again. Barcelona meets Barcelona-lite. All that stuff about the “beautiful game”; all the “Cesc is DEFINITELY going home this summer” stories; blah blah blah.
First things first: can Arsenal beat Barcelona? Well, yes, they can. Under the Guardiola regime, February is always the worst month of the season — the fixture list, the international breaks (Barca’s kryptonite), being heavily involved in three competitions, and the shortish squad mean anything can happen. If this game was being played in November, I wouldn’t have given Arsenal a chance in hell, but right now, it’s definitely possible. Furthermore, this is not the Arsenal of last season: Van Persie is back, Cesc should be healthy, Djourou might not play a one-two with Messi like Silvestre did, Nasri is even better, and Wilshere is coming on.
Also worth keeping in mind is the corresponding fixture for Barca in the last two seasons. Both against Lyon (08-09) and Stuttgart (09-10), Barca went down a goal, and had to work extremely hard to come away with a score draw in the first leg. That they cleaned up at Camp Nou in the second leg both times is besides the point; Arsenal are better than either Lyon or Stuttgart, and I can definitely see them winning the first leg. And if that happens, all bets are off.
I will say this though: in every single big game this season, Barca have not only performed but have created masterpieces. Everyone talks about the 5-0 Clasico drubbing, but go watch the 3-1 win against a high class Villareal (best game of the La Liga season for me thus far) or the 5-1 win at Espanyol or the super professional displays at San Mames and the Calderon, two difficult stadiums to win in. This year, the big games have brought the best out of Barca.
I don’t know how relevant last year’s tie is, but I’ve watched it seven times now (thank God for torrents), and every time I come away more amazed that the half time score at Emirates wasn’t 0-4 or something. If Barca play as well as they did then — and it’s a distinct possibility that they exceed those standards given the return of Don Andres, and the substitution of Ibra with David Villa — then Arsenal will lose, no matter how well they play.
One thing I’m going to keep an eye on is Arsenal’s tactics when Barca have the ball. Last year they main difference between the sides was Barca’s pressing. They hounded Arsenal to the extent that even normally assured ball-players lost their touch on occasion. Arsenal could not do the same to Barca, but if Wilshere’s comments are anything to go by, they might change that this year.
Bottom line: I wouldn’t be absolutely shocked if Arsenal actually take this, because they’re playing well, have a healthy side, and would’ve learned from their mistakes of last year. But I would be quite surprised. And in a way, the draw against Sporting this weekend, ending a run of 16 consecutive wins in which Barca outscored the opposition 60-6, might be the best thing to happen to Pep, since it would ensure no complacency or relaxation. I’m predicting a 1-1 draw at Emirates and a 3-1 win at Camp Nou.
Prediction: Barcelona to go though 4-2 on aggregate.
Well Bale is out, so I guess that doesn’t help the Spurs’ cause. And besides, don’t you kind of feel Spurs have hit their ceiling, at least this year? I’m all for backing upstarts, and frankly I’ll be supporting Spurs if for no other reason than the odious Ibra and his petty and mean statements once he was shipped out of Barcelona. But while not making anyone forget about Sacchi’s late 80s side, Milan are back. They’re on top of Serie A and look to be more inventive in the final third, with both Ibra and Robinho (!) playing well. (Side note: Milan have certainly cornered the market on sulky and mercurial talented forwards). I think this will be pretty comfortable for them.
Prediction: Milan to go through 4-1 on aggregate.
I don’t know the first thing about Schalke, other than the fact that Hitler may or may not have been a fan of theirs. But anyway, I do know Valencia, and they are playing well. They’ve leapfrogged an impressive Villareal side and now sit third, and are coping mighty well without David Silva and David Villa, who were sold in the summer to make up for Valencia’s dire economic situation.
Nonetheless, there’s something about Unai Emery that bugs me. I know he gets decent results, but I can never shake the feeling that he is a touch negative and is liable to throw away an advantage, especially over two legs, by being too cautious at some point. It’s a pity because a team with guys like Mata and Pablo should really be more free-wheeling than Valencia actually are. Oh well, whatever.
Prediction: Schalke 04 go through 3-2 on aggregate.
I have no clue. In the interest of geographical equality, let’s give it to Shakhtar, since I already have two Italian teams advancing.
Prediction: Shakhtar go through 3-1 on aggregate.
I’m telling you, Copenhagen are no joke. Barca played them twice in the group stages, and they made things very, very difficult. Especially in the tailspin Chelsea currently find themselves in, and the manic crowd they’re going to face in the first leg, I can honestly see something very strange happening here. Call me crazy.
Prediction: Copenhagen go through 3-3, on away goals.
Lightning ain’t gonna strike twice, buddy. As much as I’d like it to. Madrid are going to be all about revenge, and Mou does not lose to teams he’s not supposed to in Europe. This will be a cakewalk.
Prediction: Madrid go through 5-1 on aggregate.
Class team, Inter, led (again, after a brief interruption) by a class manager. They outplayed Bayern in last year’s final, and they’re going to outplay them again. They’ve been on a bit of a tear (with the exception of this past weekend against Juve) recently, and I see no reason their good form shouldn’t continue.
Prediction: Inter go through 4-2 on aggregate.
Done and done. As unconvincing as United have looked this year (at times), they should still win the Premier League relatively comfortably, and they won their CL group much more easily than they should have. The typical “more than the sum of their parts” team, United.
Prediction: United go through 3-0 on aggregate.