17 May 2006

CL Final: Barcelona-Arsenal Tonight!

We've done everything we can. Barcelona fans, Arsenal fans... all the preparations are made. If we got tickets, we're in Paris. If not, we know where we will watch the match. We're observing the rituals, keeping our lucky traditions. The elation of making it to the final has faded; now it's all about winning the trophy. The butterflies are starting, probably as soon as we awake if not sooner. One match. Today at 8:45PM in Paris -- 2:45 in Indianapolis -- it will all be decided.

And it should be a humdinger of a game. Cup finals have a reputation as defensive, conservative affairs, but they can be exciting goalfests too, as Saturday's FA Cup final demonstrated. Tonight, neither team will overextend themselves, yet they will be fighting to score; a draw doesn't help anyone. Much has been made of Arsenal's lack of attack in the match at Villareal, but don't forget, 0-0 was enough for the Gunners. They didn't need a goal, but they do tonight. And if either team gets an early goal... watch out!

Both squads are nearly set. The good news for Arsenal is that both Mathieu Flamini and Phillipe Senderos are in the squad. The consensus is that Ashley Cole will start at left back in place of Flamini. The center-half situation is a bit less certain, but it's probable that Sol Campbell will get the spot. I think most Gunners fans would prefer to see Senderos, both because he's earned it and because he's playing better. But he's not seen a match in a couple weeks so that makes it a tough choice. The other key question is whether Jose Antonio Reyes or Robert Pires will start wide in the 4-5-1. The Sun is reporting that Pires is the man; I'm skeptical but we'll see. If he is, that would give Arsenal the following lineup:

Eboue - Toure - Campbell - Cole
Hleb - Ljungberg - Gilberto - Fabregas - Pires

It's a proven lineup and one that can beat Barcelona. Barca are also mostly set; the one remaining question is whether Lionel Messi will start or not.Barcelona are the deserved favorites; there's a reason that they've been all but anointed as the best in Europe this year. They play a game based on a swift technical attack and organized passing. It's odd, but that seems an easier task for Arsenal to defend than the hoof-and-run of a Bolton or a Southampton. Still, they will threaten the Arsenal goal, and any free kick within about 40 yards will be cause for concern.

From an Arsenal perspective, the key to the match will be how well we can hold posession in the midfield. That was a struggle against Villareal and I don't like our chances if we struggle again today. Barcelona are too threatening and they won't miss the chances that Villareal did. But if we can sustain our attack, we should be able to break down Barca. Everyone knows about our threat through the middle, with Fabregas and Henry. Our wide threat has been a new development though and one that should prove productive tonight. Hleb and Eboue have created some real threat on the right side, and the familiar combination of Pires (or Reyes) and Cole on the left should help there too. And of course, Henry is a threat like none other.

I believe that the intangibles favor Arsenal as well. Barcelona have a successful season no matter what, with a domestic title, while Arsenal carry all their hopes in tonight's game. And Arsenal have a very good (and lucky) history with cup finals, most recently with last year's shootout win over Man Utd. It's really nothing like the previous home-and-home ties, and we'll just have to see which team is ready to get the job done.

So that's the paper matchup. As for the reality? I've done everything I can. I'm wearing the same redcurrant button-down shirt I've worn for all the Champions League matches this year. I'm wearing the Livestrong bracelet that I wore for the FA Cup final last year. Now, all there is to do is watch the match. Oh boy.


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