Good morning to you all, as today is the day we have all been waiting for. The 17th of May 2006, the Champions League Final that we may never ever see again in our lifetime. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we won’t get into the final again. More that this particular fixture – Arsenal vs Barcelona in the Champions League final is something quite special. It is a reward for two teams that play attacking football and actually entertain neutral supporters. This must be one of the most eagerly anticipated finals for a long time.
I don’t want to bore you with a long preview ranting on about the obvious stuff like Barcelona being the favourites, our key men, their key men etc. Because the truth is we already know that it all goes out of the window in cup finals. Just ask West Ham and Liverpool from the weekend. Anything can happen in football and tonight shouldn’t be any different. I really do expect tonight’s game to live up to its high expectations and I really do believe we have a huge chance of lifting that trophy in Theirry’s home town tonight.
Big games need big players and the players don’t get much bigger than this. Unquestionably the two best footballers on the planet playing in the same match in the champions league final…throw in a Deco and Eto, a little bit of Fabregas, Reyes and Hleb….then you can already see this is a game of top quality players and hopefully top quality football. Bergkamp has travelled already and if there is any occasion that deserves some Bergkamp magic, it is this. He wont start and I don’t expect him to come on unless we are either winning by a huge margin, or we are in desperate need of some creativity and losing hope.
I got an email asking me what we should expect for tonights game and to overview our route to Paris, and even though I don’t want to go too much into it, here are my final thoughts on our biggest game ever.
This season had been a disappointing one to say the least if we hadn’t made it this far in the champions league, an unnecessary “transitional” season that wasn’t needed and could have been avoided.
From the beginning of the season nobody could have predicted this would be the year we got to the final, with the squad we had, with the resources we had, the injuries that hit our team in key areas. The defence was completely ripped apart by injuries to our first team and the number of players that stood up to be counted in those desperate times shows the amazing contributions that our whole squad made in getting us this far. Youngsters that most supporters wouldn’t have heard of unless they played championship manager were doing the business for us even in a few games. Kerrea Gilbert was a young right back who kept the momentum going for us when we had Toure, Eboue and Lauren out.
We passed our preliminary group stages with flying colours and hardly conceded a goal. Since then we haven’t looked back while keeping solid against some of the biggest players in world football. Real Madrid and Juventus were two games that in terms of “big name players”, outshone us by far, with the exception of Henry of course. However, our back five consisting of Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Senderos and Flamini, didn’t concede one goal against the likes of Ronaldo, Zidane, Beckham, Robinho, Ibrahimovich, Trezeguet, Nedved etc . That is quite amazing in itself and shows the potential of our players for the future, but more importantly it shows us that we have the stable foundation needed to build from. The five in midfield in both of the first legs against Juve and Real, were outstanding and showed us exactly how the 4-5-1 formation can work effectively.
My personal opinion is that even though the back five did a fantastic job of not conceding all this time, it is as important to point out that a lot of the work was done by those five in midfield that didn’t even allow the other team to get to our defence by breaking it up in midfield and retaining possession. Gilberto had the best game I have seen him play against Villarreal where he overshadowed his South American friend, Juan Roman Riquelme. Cesc, Hleb, Freddie, Reyes and Pires were the other players that have played in the midfield, and even though all of them are actually more attacking players than defensive, they still managed to keep their discipline when defending. On so many occasions I saw Hleb winning the ball and it was quite amazing to see that phenomenal tackle Pires made on Viera to start off the move where Fabregas scored.
Liverpool and Porto are the other two teams that were not exactly favourites to win the champions league in recent years but did. However there victories were far less convicing than ours. Against Juve and Real in the first legs, we outplayed them and should have scored more in both games. Fabregas was fantastic in both, but really stood up against Juve in the first leg where he ran the midfield with his incisive passing and movement, then grabbing a goal and setting up another.
Villarreal to be honest wasn’t as much of a walkover as some expected – they were a much tougher team to play than Juve and Real, and it was only because of Jens that we made it through to the final in the last minute of the game.
The team I expect to play will probably be this (not who I think should play):
Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Hleb, Cescy, Gilberto, Ljungberg, Reyes, Henry.
That is who I think will get it, but I have a sneaky feeling Senderos MIGHT get the nod even though reports are that Campbell will start. Definitely think Cole will start because even though Flamini does deserve it, it’s just that Cole has played a few games and Flamini has been away with an injury, so Cole has the momentum of the last few games under his belt. The same goes to Campbell, even though I think Senderos would be the better choice because he organises the defence so well and has been a rock in our lead up to this game. However, on his day, Campbell can shut out most attackers but he hasn’t been up to that standard for a bit of time.
In the mirror, it says Pires will play for Reyes, I hope that isn’t the case because Reyes really has caused some problems in most of the champions league games with his close control and mazy runs forward. I think that he can really cause some damage along with Cole on the left if Belletti, the attacking full back is playing at right back. The wings will be key for us in attacking them without a doubt. The forward runs of our full backs will create two-on-one situations, where other defenders will be drawn toward them on the wings, where it will open up spaces for the likes of Ljungberg and Cesc to get in those holes. More so Ljungberg, with Cesc playing a slightly deeper role moving forward to pick out those passes.
Paris is a perfect setting to hopefully what will be a magical night for us all, a masterclass in terms of the players involved, the sort of entertaining attacking football that is played by both teams and the atmosphere will be electric. If you’re at the match, watching it at home or going to your local to enjoy it with others, enjoy it because it may well be the only game we get to enjoy this much in a bit of time. Yes we have a great young team, but how many times can you expect a growing up team to get to the champions league final? Im sure the likes of Fabregas, Reyes, Hleb, Eboue, Walcott, Senderos etc will grace the final again one day, but we have never had a better opportunity to bring home this trophy that we all so desperately want and need.