The build-ups to Arsenal’s recent fixtures have been dominated by two players – Eduardo da Silva and Cesc Fabregas – yet bizarrely it seems as though neither of the protagonists will have taken centre stage come show time.
With more publicity than a Don King title fight, the visit of Barcelona certainly promises razmatazz with the Gunners seeking first to nullify and then to glorify. However, with the sparkling form of Lionel Messi and Arsenal looking increasingly likely to be without their captain and talisman – the visit also affords Barcelona the opportunity to land a knockout blow courtesy of the away goals rule. Arsenal were certainly left reeling by Birmignham’s sucker punch on Saturday, as two points slipped away in the dying moments.
Leading up to the clash, all eyes were upon Eduardo and how he would cope with his first return to St. Andrews since that fateful day. As it was Arsene Wenger chose not to play the Croatian international, quite possibly considering the phsychological impact of returning to the field. Similarly, the 27-year-old is yet to regain the kind of form he took into that fateful match, and with Arsenal taking a late lead in the game, the manager’s decision to withhold him appeared to be vindicated. Yet the manner of Birmingham’s equaliser indicated a certain unnerving symmetry to the last encounter. The manager refuted suggestions that the game in 2008 was the catalyst for their title challenge slipping away – but at the very least it was the epitome of their problems. Perhaps the significance of the injury has been overplayed – Aaron Ramsey’s injury this season inspired the team to greater unity and victory – with William Gallas’ protest possibly dealing a more significant blow to the core of the team. The captain’s petulance signified a more widespread defensive uncertainty, which has again been evident this term.
Another aide memoir came on Saturday when Craig Gardner put in a hefty challenge on Fabregas almost exactly on the same spot as Edurado’s horrific injury had been sustained. Certainly Gardner’s sliding challenge was not reckless in the manner of Martin Taylor’s, yet it still resulted in the Spaniard taking a set of studs to the knee making him a doubt for Wednesday’s Champions League tie. As both Eduardo and Cesc may end up having missed the respective matches for which they were given star billing, another player making a return may also find himself on the periphery. Thierry Henry will make his first return as a player to the Emirates, a match which also sees his path cross with Arsene Wenger for the first time since his departure. Henry has been outspoken about how he will find it bizarre ro return to the club, yet the impact will be limited by Arsenal’s change of venue: “It will be different because I spent seven years at Highbury and only one at the Emirates, but to see the people, the fans and the other employees at the club again will be very strange.”
That Henry only spent one year at the Emirates is telling. Whilst he was a tremendous servant to the club – being voted Arsenal’s greatest player of all time on a poll conducted by the club’s official site – his best days undoubtedly came at Highbury. He has won trophies since joining Barcelona but has never shown the attacking verve of his Highbury heyday and appears to be another example of Wenger knowing the right time to let players go. His departure allowed the development of first Emmanuel Adebayor who subsequently secured the Gunners a hefty £25m transfer fee and then Robin van Persie as the club has continued the attacking brand of football that became synonymous during the Frenchman’s time. In light of this, the Ashburton Grove faithful will remember all of the Frenchman’s contributions and are likely to give a warm reception to their former idol before resuming hostilities with Barcelona.
The last time the two sides clashed, Arsenal were underdogs and they enter the fixture under the same label now, yet their season so far has seen them revel under this heading. High profile losses have largely overshadowed hard-fought victories in terms of media attention, yet Arsenal have rallied since being written off. The Champions League however, is another prospect altogether. There will be no last-chance saloon if Arsenal cannot deal with the interchangeable attacking fluidity of Bar