Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Champions League Final - Tactical Preview

The biggest test yet for Arsenal's defence

AFTER the semi finals a couple of weeks ago I delved into how both Barcelona and Arsenal, two teams known for their flowing football, have relied on a more pragmatic approach to reach the final.

It was a point re-iterated by Barca’s intelligent Portuguese playmaker Deco, such a key figure in the outcome of tomorrow morning’s (Australian time) mouth-watering feast, who, when talking about his team’s run to the final spoke with such tactical awareness about how deliberate Barcelona have been to ensure they haven’t leaked goals this season as they have done in previous Champions League campaigns.

In the past couple of weeks he has spoken, on more than one occasion, about the new thoughtfulness prevalent at the Nou Camp.

“Playing better does not mean scoring goals and winning by three or four - that's not always possible. I think we're better this year because we have become more mature, more intelligent at crucial moments in games. That's what we were maybe missing last season,” he said on the eve of the second leg semi final.

This week, he added: "It is true that we now know how to defend well. Instead of just pressing forward we have learnt to adapt to each game and remain concentrated throughout. We still go out to win the games like before but now also we put a lot of importance on defending strongly and not getting caught out by sloppy mistakes. It is going to be a difficult game against Arsenal definitely, but we will play to our strengths and we have confidence."

There is little doubt that Deco has sacrificed some of his own attacking instincts to aid this more defensive structure, particularly since teammate Xavi has been out injured.

In previous campaigns for both Porto in 2003/2004 and Barcelona last year, you would often find Deco high up the pitch, influencing the final third of proceedings with a telling final ball or shot on goal. This season, particularly since the knock-out phase began, Deco has been found deeper, closer to holding midfielder Edmilson, providing the necessary blanket for Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly to strut their stuff.

It has been this sense of purpose that has stamped Barca as the favourites to lift the ‘trophy with big ears’ since knocking off Chelsea in March, and they will enter the final knowing that if they continue with the same formula - dot their ‘i’s’ and cross their ‘t’s’ in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch - they have the necessary punch up front to finally breach Arsenal’s amazing rearguard.

There is too much at stake for Barca – they have only won the European crown once in 50 years - for them to suddenly open up and throw men forward merrily.

They will also know that this Arsenal team is among the most ruthless of counterattacking teams in the world, blessed with the blistering pace and finishing of Thierry Henry up front and the support cast of pacey midfielders like Jose Antonio Reyes, Freddie Ljungberg, Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. Then, when they are free of their defensive duties on Ronaldinho and Giuly respectively, Emmanuel Eboue and Ashley Cole will try to get forward in support.

It appears there will be few surprises in team selection or shape for both sides. Both will stick with what’s worked to date, except at the back for Arsenal, where the quartet of Eboue, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini appear likely to be broken up by the return of Sol Campbell and Cole.

It is hard not to feel sorry for both Senderos and Flamini, but injuries at the wrong end of the season have probably opened the door for the experienced English duo.

Certainly Campbell looked shaky both on the ground and in the air on his return to the team at the El Madrigal, and Frank Rijkaard might look to exploit this hesitation by sending Eto’o in his direction.

Eboue, a flanker converted to a right back by Arsene Wenger, has been the revelation of the Arsenal campaign, but here he faces his biggest test. How Eboue deals with the world’s best player will be crucial. Yes he destroyed Robinho at the Bernabeu, but Ronaldinho is an altogether different prospect cutting in from the left.

No doubt Eboue’s Ivory Coast colleague Toure will be under instructions from Wenger to stay close to Eboue, ensuring Ronaldinho is double-teamed as often as possible. We saw how lethal he can be if left one-on-one when he destroyed Gennaro Gattuso in the semi.

When the Brazilian drifts infield, the job on picking him up will fall to compatriot Gilberto Silva, with Fabregas and Ljungberg expected to be nearby.

Arsenal will defend fairly deep, conscious not to leave too much space between defence and midfield, space the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco and Andres Iniesta would relish.

That is the beauty of this Barcelona outfit, they have the creativity to break down teams who defend deep and the pace to burn teams who defend high up the pitch.

Arsenal will adopt a similar pattern to Sevilla last week, moving the ball forward at pace, hoping they can get midfielders breaking in support of Henry.

Barcelona have spoken this week of the need to stop the supply to Henry, a tactic that worked so effectively against Chelsea, where they put pressure on Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard, stopping the supply to the front three. Here they will look to pressure Arsenal early, ensuring they can’t get their flowing passing game together.

Essentially, they will look to copy the job Villarreal did in the second leg of the semi final, denying Fabregas opportunity on the ball and forcing him to do his fair share of defensive work.

With Carles Puyol and Rafael Marquez sure to be busy with Henry, Edmilson and the two fullbacks (likely to be Presas Oleguer on the right and Giovanni van Bronkhorst on the left) will have the job of tracking Arsenal’s breaking midfielders.

From a selection perspective, it will be interesting to see who Rijkaard goes with as the third of his central midfielders alongside Edmilson and Deco. Will it be the defensive minded and more physical Thiago Motta, who he used against Chelsea, or the more positive Iniesta, so impressive against AC Milan?

The other option of course is the recently returned Xavi, but given the little action both he and Lionel Messi have seen, they’re more likely to be potential wildcards off the bench.

Arsenal will have done well if it gets to the stage where Messi is needed to win or rescue the game, but confidence is no doubt high after 10 consecutive clean sheets, a point everyone in the Gunners camp has been making in the lead up to the final.

The big question is how this defence handles the step-up in class and whether the twinkle toes of Ronaldinho & Co. can dent Arsenal’s confidence.


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