(From the TheHardTackle archives..)
The perfect football equivalent of Angels Descending down on Mother Earth is perhaps what will be ‘on show’ at North London on the 16th of Feb. Arsenal FC, at home, with their effervescent brand of football will welcome much less arguably the greatest football team on this planet, FC Barcelona. If mankind wished for bliss on a football pitch, this is the ultimate fulfillment. If football fans hoped for scintillating football skills without the ‘dirty’ aspect of the game on show, this is the match to watch. Whatever is the result of the game, there is only one winner. Football!
Keeping with the tradition of TheHardTackle, we are going to do a Rival Rendezvous© where in-house representative of the respective clubs question each other regarding the opposing club’s ‘Plan of Action’ for the game.
Representing Barcelona, we have Anustup Sikdar, a die-hard Catalan, whose questions and answers will appear with an ‘AS’ appended in front.
Representing Arsenal, I am Sounak Mukherjee, a Gooner forever, my questions and answers will appear with an ‘SM’ appended in front.
Here’s to the fun!
Anustup will start off with answering my questions.
SM: If we travel a bit back in time, Barcelona FC had a rough patch (1999-2003) akin to Arsenal FC, as far as winning trophies were concerned. What is (according to you) that single source of inspiration or driving force which brought about the change in fortunes at Camp Nou? Laporta? Rijkaard? Ronaldinho? Anyone else?
AS: FAITH. That’s right. We had faith in the system, in our La Masia, in the values instilled in us. It’s not a seasonal thing. It took us more than two decades to reach where we are today. It’s not any individual, it’s the entire system. However, we are indebted to Rijkaard, Ronaldinho, Laporta and others who contributed in their own unique way to make their stay special. And the epicenter of that faith is undoubtedly a Dutchman who helped us – Johan Cruyff. As a player and manager, Cruyff brought about the essence of Total Football at Camp Nou. Whatever we are, it has to be attributed to Cruyff and the values instilled by him. We had faith in his abilities and intelligence and that’s paying off now.
SM: Is the over-reliability on the World’s Best Footballer a good thing for Barca? [Like, for ex, if he doesn’t score, Barca fail to win some games (not always, of course)]
AS: Every team has a player on whom the team relies. Arsenal has Cesc, Milan has Zlatan, Madrid has Ronaldo. Similarly, Barcelona has Messi. Yes, at times, we depend on him more, because it’s Messi who can do the impossible and depending on him isn’t a bad thing. Guardiola himself said that the current Barcelona team wouldn’t have been the one that we are now. Messi makes the difference. Without him, we are a very good team, but Messi takes us to a different level altogether. Pep also said that without Barcelona, Messi wouldn’t have been who he is today. Messi and FC Barcelona complement each other. It’s a match made in heaven, so a little bit of over-dependence on him isn’t a bad thing. However, we also have other ways to unlock defenses.
SM: Guardiola has been a fantastic manager for the Catalans. What do you think is possibly the ultimate test for the former Barca Youth Manager?
AS: Guardiola has been fabulous. However, I, for one, believe that we suffer at times due to a lack of plan B. We seriously don’t have that. In most cases that’s not necessary, but there are a few occasions which demand a different approach. Guardiola’s ultimate test lies in taking Barcelona to a level that would eclipse the current squad. We don’t believe in competing with others. We are our biggest competitors! Guardiola has to beat the present FC Barcelona to prove his greatness.
SM: How will Barcelona’s approach to this game at The Emirates be any different from the last match they played against them, considering that was almost Arsenal’s second team without Cesc, van Persie, Arshavin, Song (and Sylvester playing at Central Defense for the visiting Gunners)?
AS: Injuries and suspensions are a part of a team. They cannot blame them for undesirable results. We too did not have Abidal and Alves in the 2009 UCL final, and the experienced Marquez too wasn’t there. We missed some of our key defenders against one of the most imperious attacking line-ups, led by Cristiano Ronaldo. We played to the best of our abilities, and the rest is history. Champions make their own luck! You strive with whatever you have, and hope for the best and get prepared for the worst. I don’t think Arsenal should be blaming the absence of key personnel for the loss. That’s part of the game.
SM: Is the combination of the two facts a little worrisome for Barca? – Unavailability of Puyol and van Persie’s incredible goal-scoring form (12 in 12)
AS: Yes, Van Persie is a special player. He has been in good form. However, I am not worried about the loss of Puyol against Van Persie, because like I said earlier, these are excuses and as Cules, we don’t believe in them. We will play to the best of our ability and hope that our attackers get more than what Van Persie or Arsenal as a team does.
SM: Barca’s 16 match winning run got halted by Gijon this weekend, the team stifling the Catalans! Has the team confidence taken a beating? What is the learning from that game that the team needs to carry forward to North London?
AS: The players were back from an international match. Guardiola substituted Pedro, Busquets and Abidal with Afellay, Mascherano and Milito. Now the point to be noted is, the former group played a midweek friendly match and so did the latter group. So the question of bringing in fresh players doesn’t arise. Plus the latter group of players haven’t featured much and hence its not unusual that they couldn’t contribute to the fluid movement. However, these aren’t excuses, just my opinion. Pedro, Busi and Abidal must have been rested keeping in mind the crucial away tie at Emirates. Confidence surely hasn’t taken a beating. We approach all games in one particular way, irrespective of the opposition. We will continue to do the same against Arsenal.
SM: Considering Arsenal play a brand of football similar to your team, who will never plan to ‘choke’ your players and defend deep, is it actually easier to play Arsenal compared to teams like Inter?
AS: Definitely not. There is no such thing as an “EASY OPPOSITION.” We will approach this game like we did in all the matches till date. However, this match is of paramount importance, if we have to go to the next round. We will play our usual game and try to score whenever possible. Having said that, we will have to be on our toes because it’s not a secret that FC Barcelona can be hit on the counter. And Arsenal has quite a few nimble footed players.
TheHardTackle Players to Watch Out For:
Now, it’s my turn to answer.
AS: What was your reaction when Arsenal was drawn against FC Barcelona?
SM: Nothing indifferent to be honest! In fact, I was expecting Barcelona as our opponents maybe due to some kind of extrasensory perception I really can’t explain here. Let’s get it straight, to win the Champions League, you have to beat the best of the teams, and now we have that opportunity placed on a silver platter.
AS: What do you think will be Arsenal’s approach towards the game?
SM: Arsenal will keep the ‘Chelsea-game’ as blueprint and adopt the same methodology to get the better of the Catalans. We are in terrific goal-scoring form and we are not intimidated by Barcelona like maybe last time. We will throw bodies forward all the time and try to retrieve the ball back from Barcelona as quickly as possible. Theo is a genuine threat on the right wing and we are going to exploit as much as possible if Maxwell starts on that side for the visiting side.
AS: What lessons would Mr. Wenger have taken from last year’s encounter?
SM: As I said before, this time we don’t look upto them and say, “Well, they are the best team in the World, We don’t think we can really handle them!” We are playing with a lot of self belief now and with much less injuries, giving the squad further depth. We will even have a fit Nasri on the bench, our best player of the season. Win tackles. Choke them for space. Don’t let them keep possession.
AS: How would you differentiate last year’s Barcelona with the current one?
SM: Not much has changed except for the introduction of Villa instead of the towering Zlatan, though the Swede did hurt us. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta are still exceptional with the football whenever they are on the pitch. Puyol won’t be there at the rear-guard end, which means the combination of Gerrard and him gets broken, with no offense meant to Milito, he is good too.
AS: Your manager said that Messi was in playstation-mode, but what do you have to say about his Camp Nou performance in the quarter-final second leg?
SM: He was simply unstoppable! There are some days when you know that even if you give your best, a result won’t be possible because there is somebody out there who is in exceptional touch, an echelon beyond reach. That second leg at Camp Nou was one of those strange days. You can sometimes just pray that a Messi, a Ronaldo or a Zidane aint at their best on a match day if they are your opponents!
AS: If given a choice, would you have chosen another opponent? If yes, then who and why?
SM: No. We were destined to play Barcelona. The Beautiful Football Derby is the best thing that can happen to football fans worldwide. What is football without challenges of this epic proportion? These are the things that make history and newspaper headlines? “Arsenal takes Sweet Revenge” is an attractive Headline as far as I am concerned.
AS: Who’s that one player that you’d like to have in your team, apart from Lionel Messi? Why?
SM: You mean from Barcelona? None! We have competition for every position in our team and we are absolutely satisfied with our team. And, we will never buy Lionel Messi or the likes. That is not our policy. That is not our system. We don’t buy superstars. We make them!
Let’s hope for a cracking encounter!