Pat Nevin: Much to decide, much to discuss
column Tue 20 Feb 2018
There can only be one topic for former Blue Pat Nevin as he writes this week’s column and shares his thoughts on tonight’s big game…
I am going to nip out on a limb here and say that tonight’s game against Barcelona might just be a little more difficult than Friday night’s match against Hull City. The FA Cup tie was, however, more helpful than you might suspect. The confidence from that first half in particular definitely helped a number of individuals.
Cesc Fabregas was back in brilliant midfield-controlling form, playing a fabulous range of creative passes. Emerson Palmieri and the youngsters Ethan Ampadu, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Kyle Scott got some important game time but it was other bigger names who got important boosts. Olivier Giroud has got rid of that niggling stress every striker feels before scoring their first goal for their new club. He also has more match minutes with his new team-mates under his belt and already he looks a perfect fit in in terms of style. The link-up with the attacking midfielders has been seamless since his move.
Willian was sparkling and adds another string to the manager’s bow when considering who to start and who to hold in reserve for what will be a vital second half in this one against Barcelona. Which brings us to the main point, who does Antonio start with tonight?
Considering who was rested at the weekend, you would expect Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante, Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen to be certain starters but then the decisions get tougher. Is it a version of 3-5-2 which would suit Cesc Fabregas, a man who would certainly be up for it against his old club?
That would leave the decision to be made on who partners Eden up top, should it be Giroud or Alvaro Morata? Not an easy call but then at least there is a decision for the manager to make, something that wasn’t always the case before we prised Olivier away from Arsenal. I would guess Giroud gets the nod purely on fitness level, but they will certainly both be utilised at some point during the evening. Alvaro would quite like to score against Barça for the obvious historical reasons so it remains uncertain.
There is also the possibility of instead going with the 3-4-3 that was so incredibly successful last season. Against Barcelona this must be a huge temptation because it is a more secure set up. Most teams tend to play fairly tight against them, but it is a home game and we probably need something to take forward for the second leg. Once again, it is not an easy call. In this set-up, Eden would be back on the left which is a huge temptation because if there is one position that Barça aren’t settled, it is in their right full-back area. Semedo, the first choice, is suspended so surely this is where we need to focus a lot of our attacking play.
Who then do you choose between Willian and Pedro on the other wing? Willian has been fabulous lately as I mentioned before, with the Hull goals being the icing on the cake but of course Pedro will also be fired up against his former team.
It really is worth reiterating that we are fortunate that the gaffer has more options this time than he has had for a month or so. Thank goodness for that because the opposition certainly isn’t bad, even if there are a few that suggest Barcelona are a lesser team than they have been in the past. A quick look at La Liga table disavows anyone of the idea they are weak in any way. Maybe Neymar leaving is a reason some think there might have been a small, albeit imperceptible dip, from their stellar orbit. Of course the magical Andres Iniesta is no longer a spring chicken but even so, he is still world-class and there is enough quality around him to make any team on the planet wary.
Barcelona are masters of creativity and attacking football but right now, they are ridiculously mean at the back as well. One goal lost in the Champions League so far, they have only shipped two in their last eight hours of domestic football and only 11 goals have been conceded in La Liga so far this season. That is before we even start to think about the amazing statistics that Luis Suarez and of course Lionel Messi can boast in front of goal.
This is going to be an incredibly difficult tie and clearly the hardest confronted by any of the five English teams left in the competition. Being outsiders however is not a bad thing this time, and of course a look back at the history between the sides shows that anything can happen. Just thinking about Fernando’s goal in the Nou Camp still makes me smile every time I consider it.
It seems to happen every year, but clearly this is the pivotal period of the season that the club is entering. Everyone has spotted the Man City, Man United and the double Barcelona dates are arriving in quick succession. You cannot however look further forward than tonight and hope that the tie is still live by the end of this game. Any win would be great, a clean sheet fantastic but even a draw would keep the hopes alive.
This tie is what the huge effort last season was all about, so hopefully the players, particularly our stars such as Hazard and Kante can be at their best. If they are then anything can happen and we might even witness one of those magical Champions League nights that we have grown accustomed to down the years.
One group that will not let us down is the fans. Even through the tough times in January the supporters have given huge backing to the manager and the players. Tonight we need another 10 per cent at least; I suspect we will get it.