Nou Camp - Here We Come!

Oh dear. Not the draw we wanted. Especially being tied away second. If we can’t cure our inability to defend like grown-ups I have a feeling that the quarter-finals will be all she wrote for us in this season’s Champions League. I don’t want to be defeatist but realism is important. Barça absolutely murdered VfB Stuttgart this week in the Nou Camp with Lionel Messi on fire. That said, we need to approach this game positively but with our feet on the ground. We need to have a plan.
The first and most important pre-condition for any winning team is the quality of the players. How the players “blend” into a team and the tactical organisation is crucial too though. Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck wasn’t the best central defender of his era in West Germany with Bayern Munich in the 1970s. He did however form a formidable partnership with “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbaur at sweeper at the heart of the Bayern Munich defence. Likewise they were a great pairing for the West German national team that won the World Cup in 1974.
At Arsenal, Willie Young wasn’t close to the best centre-half in the League. He was never capped for his native Scotland. He did however form a great central defensive partnership with David O’Leary in the side that reached three consecutive FA Cup Finals 1978-80 (including the unforgettable 3-2 win over Manchester United in 1979) and the runners-up spot in the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Valencia in Brussels.
The great Rinus Michels, coach of Ajax in their glory years and the “clockwork orange” Dutch national team of “total football” in the 1970s always said that the simplest way to defend was to play the game in the opposition’s half and deny them as much possession as possible. “They can’t score if they haven’t got the ball” he said. Denying Barça as much possession as possible and playing as much of the game as possible in their half will be key to our chances. We simply aren’t built to withstand any sort of consistent pressure in and around our box.
Let’s not be too pessimistic. I remember walking up to the Bernabéu in 2006 thinking we’d do well to keep them to a one goal deficit to take back to Highbury. We weren’t playing well. Presto, we really pulled it out of the bag with a great performance and a fantastic winner from Thierry Henry. We were helped; it has to be said, by an inexplicable tactical display from Real Madrid.
They left Pablo Garcia, an excellent (if ruthless) Uruguayan international midfield man to man marker out of the side and gave Cesc Fàbregas the freedom to roam. Mistake. Big mistake. I remember one occasion in the first half when he took a pass in our half with his back to goal. He seemed shocked to find no Real Madrid player within ten metres of him. If Garcia had been playing he would have known all about it. His boot would have been half way up his rear end!
Going on to meet Juventus in the quarter-finals we proved that the performances against Real Madrid hadn’t been a fluke. We were absolutely magnificent in the second leg in the Stadio delli Alpi. It isn’t often that you see a Fabio Capello coached team reduced to launching long balls into the box. We had the best defensive record in the tournament that season. That’s what we need to recapture.
If we do manage to get past the defending European and World Champions we’d face either Internazionale or CSKA Moscow in the semi-finals. You’d imagine it’d be Inter, especially if they show the form they have over two legs against Chelsea. Inter currently look the most balanced team in the tournament to me. José Mourinho pulled off a tactical masterpiece at Stamford Bridge. Whether “The Special One” is your cup of tea or not he knows his stuff tactically. I hate the way his teams dive but you’d have to get up very early to get one over him when it comes to team organisation and tactical discipline. Barcelona at their best are unplayable going forward. They wiped the floor with United for the last 75 minutes of last season’s Champions League Final in Rome. They can be vulnerable at the back though if you can get at them. Most teams spend most of the game going backwards however.
The home leg against Barça will take place next Wednesday week 31 March 2010. The return leg in the Nou Camp will take place the following week on Tuesday 6 April 2010. Should we progress to the semi-finals we’d be at home second to either Inter or CSKA Moscow. The home leg would take place on Tuesday 20 April 2010 with the return at the Grove on Wednesday 28 April. If we come through that lot to the final we’d be designated the “away” team, meaning we’d have to play in a change strip in the event of a colour clash and would use the visitors’ dressing room at the Estadio Bernabéu.
We need to go into the Barcelona games positive but having done as much as we can to address our defensive weaknesses. Our job in the stands will be to REALLY go for it. I know the fantastic atmosphere generated last season against Manchester United didn’t end up helping us, but giving it our all is what we have to contribute.
Now then, time to put all that to one side and concentrate fully on tomorrow’s League visit of West Ham United. The ‘Appy ‘Ammers are fighting for their Premier League lives at the moment. As Stoke City, Burnley and Hull City have demonstrated in recent weeks there are no easy games in this League. We need to be at our ruthless best tomorrow tea-time.
I close with a little bit of fixture information for you. If Spurs beat Fulham in their FA Cup replay next week then our game at the Lane will be pushed from Sat 10 April to Wed 14 April. Either way the game will be shown live on Sky. Speaking of Fulham, congratulations on their great win against La Vecchia Signora last night at Craven Cottage in the Europa League. They’ve drawn VfL Wolfsburg in the quarter finals. I’m made up for their fans and for Roy Hodgson, a gentleman and a VERY underrated manager. He’s my manager of the season by a good distance already. I hope they go all the way to the final in Hamburg, a city with plenty of scope for having far too much fun.
Here’s to three points and a boost to our goal difference and goals scored tomorrow against the Hammers.
Keep the faith!

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