You already know how Arsenal are going to play Barcelona: sit deep, hit them on the counter. It’s a plan Wenger has used against them for almost a decade and it’s almost worked each time, almost.
For example, 2006. What if Arsenal had held on to the 1-0 lead in Paris and won the Champions League in 2006? Despite being a man down, thanks to a foul by German keeper Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell put the Gunners ahead with a magnificent header off a Thierry Henry free kick. Arsenal then held that lead for 40 minutes, a man down, against one of the best teams in world football.
Even within that game there were so many what ifs? What if Lehmann had just conceded the goal instead of fouling Eto’o? What if Wenger hadn’t subbed off Pires and instead taken off Hleb? What if Thierry Henry converted from a chance right in front of goal after an Eboue cross? What if Freddie Ljungberg scored when he was clean through in the second half? What if Almunia didn’t allow Eto’o to score on his near post? And what if Almunia didn’t block Beletti’s shot into the roof of the goal? The entire course of Arsenal football club would have changed: Henry, Pires, Campbell, and Lehmann would have won the Champions League with Arsenal and that team would have been crowned the best defense in Champions League history.
Then in 2011, what if Nicklas Bendtner had scored when clean through on goal instead of dribbling into Javier Mascherano? The score was 1-1 after an own goal by Busquets and because Arsenal had won the first leg 2-1, thanks to this curling pearl of a goal by Andrey Arshavin, the Gunners actually led the aggregate 2-3.
Barcelona were playing with their now customary man advantage because the referee sent off Robin van Persie. It was perhaps the most annoying refereeing decision I have ever seen in my years of watching football: in the biggest match of the season, the referee issues a second yellow card to a player, for shooting after the whistle. The noise inside the Nou Camp is deafening. How, van Persie was supposed to hear the whistle is a mystery. And more to the point, van Persie was just doing what all players are told to do: play to the whistle.
But despite being down 2-1 (aggregate 4-4) Nicklas Bendtner was played clean through by Jack Wilshere and instead of taking a touch to his right, he dribbled right into the path of Javier Mascherano’s now famous tackle. If only he’d have taken the shot first time, or dribbled some other direction, he could have scored the winner.
What if Bendtner had scored? What if the referee hadn’t sent off Robin van Persie? What if Fabregas hadn’t back-heeled the ball to Iniesta? What if Szczesny hadn’t gotten injured and Almunia forced to play against Barcelona again?
And now we come to this season and Arsenal have to play Barcelona once again. This is a Barcelona team who have an even more deadly front three than the other times Arsenal have played them. Now they feature Messi (the best player in the world), Neymar (the best Brazilian player in the world), and Luis Suarez (the best player to ever bite someone in the world). And I’m left asking again, what if? What if Liverpool had honored the contract and sold Luis Suarez to Arsenal?
The Arsenal-Liverpool-Suarez story has created a lot of angst down the years. People say Arsenal should have bid more. People complain that the contract didn’t have a clause. Or that the clause wasn’t rock solid. Or that the PFA (who supported Liverpool in not honoring the clause) was doing the bidding of the club, not the player. People say that Liverpool owner John Henry was only bragging when he claimed that the clause was there but that they simply refused to honor it. But the fact in this case are plain, and as I have maintained all along, it was Suarez who got cold feet and refused to sue Liverpool to force the deal through. He didn’t really want to come to Arsenal.
You won’t believe me, so read Sid Lowe. There was a clause, Arsenal triggered the clause, Liverpool refused to honor the contract, and despite his publicly stating that he wanted to come to Arsenal, Luis Suarez was convinced by Steven Gerrard and Liverpool management that if he stayed at Liverpool he would eventually earn a move to his dream club, Barcelona.
There is still that “what if” though. What if Liverpool had been an honorable football club and respected Suarez’ release clause? Many believe that Arsenal would have won the League and I find it hard to argue against them. Suarez could be with Arsenal right now, winning things and challenging for the Champions League.
But Arsenal didn’t win any of those battles. They lost in 2006. They lost again in 2010 and 2011. They lost the Fabregas battle. They lost the Suarez battle. And once again, it looks like Barcelona come to London the stronger team, and it looks like Arsenal are going to get pricked by the Barcelona trident.
But.. what if? What if just this once, Arenal get the balance right as Wenger said? Arsenal finally have a world class goalkeeper. They have a starting back four who are experienced playing against Barcelona and Luis Suarez. Arsenal’s back four are also well versed in sitting deep against clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich — Koscielny has played in the side that has beaten both of those teams a combined three times. Arsenal also have speedy attackers: Walcott, Welbeck, and Alexis. Attackers who can be served up with long passes from Arsenal’s world class playmaker, Mesut Özil (don’t discount Özil’s long passing, he’s probably the best in the world at picking out a striker on the fast break).
So, what if?