With all of the Manchester United v Porto headlines currently plastered over every inch of newspaper space available, one would be shocked to know that there’s actually a second quarter-final match going on tonight at the Emirates between Arsenal and Villarreal.
Arsene Wenger’s men managed a to come away with a 1-1 draw at El Madrigal in the first leg of the tie and now find themselves 90 minutes away from returning to the semi-final round for the second time in three years. With a number of players missing for tonight’s clash, the pressure will truly be on Arsenal’s youth to keep the dream alive by playing some of the best football of their lives against one of the better clubs in Europe.
Whilst Arsene Wenger most likely has a blueprint for tonight’s match, I’d imagine he’ll still have to make some critical decisions be the seat of his pants late in the match. After all, we are talking about the Champions League where anything is possible (just ask Liverpool and Chelsea).
But if one were to get the chance to take a peek at Wenger’s blueprint prior to tonight’s match, I’d imagine you’d see these four bullet points at the top of his list.
1. Don’t get complacent: If there’s one thing Arsenal can’t afford to do tonight it would be to sit back and play a defensive brand of football for the entire night. Conventional wisdom has shown us that teams that play for the 0-0 draw end up making costly mistakes.
Whilst a 0-0 draw will do for Arsenal, Wenger knows that his team must attack from the start if they want to have any chance of progressing. With van Persie a doubt for tonight’s matchup, Wenger will be looking for Emmanuel Adebayor to put on a performance similar to the one we saw in the first leg.
Wenger will emplore his squad to attack from the start. The question is, will they be able to make the most of their opportunities early on?
2. Attack the gaping hole in the Villarreal defence: The injury to Villarreal defensive midfielder Marcos Senna is massive loss to the yellow submarine. Not only does it leave a massive hole in their squad, but it also leaves them terribly exposed at the back. If you want an example, think of Liverpool without Javier Mascherano in the first leg against Chelsea.
Senna’s loss should be Arsenal’s gain, and I’d imagine they’ll take advantage of the hole when they can. Look for Arsenal to get the ball out quickly to the wings in the hopes of spreading Villarreal as wide as possible. Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott will be looking to speed up the pace of play when they can before they cross the ball back into the middle of the park for Cesc Fabregas. From there it should be a playground for the Spanish magician who should have numerous options with Senna out of the picture.
3. Believe in Yourself: Even with the advantage of playing at home tonight, Wenger understands that the task won’t be an easy one. The loss of Manuel Almunia, William Gallas, Gaël Clichy, Johan Djourou and possibly Robin van Persie to injuries could play a crucial part in the match.
Arsenal’s shaky back line will become even more of a question tonight as 19-year-old left back, Kieran Gibbs, is thrown into the fire. His play earlier this season during a loss to Porto in the Champions League was admirable, but he’ll need to push his game to another level if he’s to get the best of Villarreal’s Ruben Cani.
The loss of Gallas for the rest of the season means Mikaël Silvestre will be taking over in his place. Silvestre has been far from a rock in central defence. Like Gibbs, he’ll need to take a deep breath and believe in himself.
Sometimes in these matches the pressure becomes so much that it almost seems like each breath is shortened. Wenger will need to address the squad early on and calm the nerves. There needs to be a belief from the start that the squad can get the job done without some key players.
4. Feed Fabregas: It goes without saying that Cesc Fabregas is the straw that stirs Arsenal’s drink. He’ll need to be even more on his game tonight against a staunch Villarreal defence.
Look for Wenger to get Fabregas in the middle of the action whenever he can. It will be the midfielder’s job to really seek out his team-mates — especially Adebayor — and lead the offensive onslaught. Fabregas doesn’t need to push things tonight — rather he needs to let the game come to him and use the loss of Marcos Senna to his advantage.
If Fabregas gets the space and the ball often, there’s a very good chance Arsenal will be celebrating at the centre of the pitch when the night is over.