The road to the Champions League final has never been easy for Arsenal. Last time, it took a series of clean sheets , a brilliant individual goal from Thierry Henry to get past Real Madrid, and an amazing performance from a teenaged Cesc Fabregas over his idol and mentor Patrick Vieira to get past Juventus in order to get to the promised land. This year, we first face favorites Barcelona and then one of either Inter Milan or CSKA Moscow in the semi-final if we are to get back.
First we have to get past Barcelona, who have the in-form team, the in-form player of the year, and are the team no one wanted to play. It’s been four years almost since the last time Arsenal played Barcelona and some of the names have changed, some have gotten older, and some have come back. It was the game that had everything; a red card for Lehmann, Pires being substituted for Almunia, the 10 men Arsenal going ahead through a Sol Campbell header, Arsenal legend Thierry Henry missing a golden chance, and Barcelona taking the game at the end through two quick goals.
In the end, Arsenal got runner’s up medals and that Arsenal side was slowly dismantled and has taken 4 years to build up to the team we have today. A team that is challenging for the League title and who are 4 matches from reaching the finals again. There will be time for a more in-depth analysis of Barcelona ahead of the match on the 31st but I did want to highlight the history and the oddness of Sol re-signing for Arsenal and possibly getting to play them again (Gallas’ injury is still ongoing). There’s one other fact I’d like to highlight; the first leg is at the Emirates on the 31st and that is followed by a visit of the Wolves on that Saturday. That would make a memorable trip wouldn’t it? Especially since the first leg of that Champions League match will, in all likelihood, decide the tie for Arsenal: a big win in the first leg will give us some confidence going to the Camp Nou.
But that’s weeks away, up next is relegation threatened West Ham and all of Arsenaldom is itching to get some revenge on the Hammers, go back to the top of the table for a day, and solidify our title credentials. West Ham, for their part, aren’t going to lie down and let us beat them like Mick McCarthy’s Wolves did against Man U or like Avram Grant’s Pompey are threatening to do for the rest of the season. Rather, it’s looking like Gianfranco Zola is under the axe with three straight losses and another, even to Arsenal away, could spell the end of his career at West Ham. So, despite their abysmal record of late, I expect a fully committed West Ham to come out and try to get some points.
West Ham are missing several key defensive players but they have Carlton Cole back and he could get the start up front in what some are suspecting will be a Hammer’s 4-5-1. Noble is missing for them in the midfield but talismanic midfielder Scott Parker is expected to get a kick or two in.
Arsenal have Alex Song back from suspension and Cesc back from injury. With William Gallas out one of either Silvestre or Campbell will play. I suspect Campbell will play today and be rested against Birmingham where Silvestre will play so that Sol can play in the first leg against Barcelona. Unless by some miracle William Gallas gets healthy, in which case Gallas is a shoo-in for Barca.
The rest of the team picks itself at the moment and for me the player to watch is Nicklas Bendtner. His scoring record against relegation fodder is quite impressive and he is in a fine vein of form at the moment with 6 goals in his last 5 games and 3 in his last 4 League matches. This isn’t ruling out Arshavin scoring, he’s nabbed two in his last three while setting up 2 against Porto, nor Cesc who has a goal in each of the last three plus 2 assists in the 3-1 win against Stoke’s leg breaking cunts.*
Could West Ham surprise and give up in this match in order to go for points against Wolves next week? Could Arsenal come out and put on a goal-scoring masterclass with all of these in-form players hitting the nets at the moment? I am loath to predict any outcomes but I suspect we might see something special tomorrow, a sort of message to Barcelona that Arsenal are their equals.
The match kicks off at 10:30am local time which is a late start over here owing to the fact that George W. Bush managed to ruin time in America and we are temporarily -7 hours GMT. The game is live on Fox Soccer Channel and I will try to get a liveblog going for you all if I can get Aveline out of the house (she’s 2 now and won’t let me have a moment to myself anymore). If not, well, I don’t know what I’ll do.
See you tomorrow.
*Sorry but with Ryan Shawcross coming out unapologetic and promising to break more legs this week I’m at a loss for words to describe them. “Scum” or “dicks” just doesn’t seem to capture the rage I’m feeling.