Gunners can exploit Puyol's absence

February, 16, 2011

Arsene Wenger will certainly be pleased that Barcelona captain Carles Puyol is unavailable for Wednesday's Champions League match at the Emirates Stadium.

The Arsenal manager tried to match Barca tiki for taka last season and found his team outplayed. Puyol was absent for the return match at Camp Nou last season and Barca was caught on the break early, allowing Nicklas Bendtner to score. The tie became Barca star Lionel Messi's as the game progressed, but Arsenal will not have forgotten how it came to lead the contest overall at Camp Nou, however briefly. To stop the Gunners' attack, Barcelona defender Dani Alves in particular will need to track back more enthusiastically than he did versus Sporting Gijon on Saturday in El Molinon.

Indeed, you can't underestimate the absence of Puyol in this clash.

A popular pastime of the Spanish media in the buildup to a big match is to ask a player or manager which member of the opposing team he would remove from the starting lineup given the chance. Replies vary little, especially when the query is aimed at a coach about to face Barcelona. But were a coach able to spirit a second player from the Liga champion's starting XI, it might not be one of Messi's feted front four accomplices Pedro, David Villa, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and probably not even midfield anchor Sergio Busquets, whom Xavi described this week as the best one-touch passer on the team.

The scourge of Barcelona's rivals is club captain Puyol.

Off the field, Puyol barely registers in a country obsessed by celebrity. His Spain and Barcelona teammate, Gerard Pique, was ubiquitous on the Internet last week as he posed for a friend's camera with his new girlfriend, Shakira.

Puyol, his arm draped around Pique and with his own Spanish supermodel girlfriend by his side, did not earn an inch of column space. The same cannot be said when the sports pages are in question.

During the World Cup semifinal against Germany, with the clock ticking ominously toward extra time and penalties, Xavi lofted a corner kick toward Pique, but it was not the debonair defender who applied his carefully sculpted coiffure to the delivery. Clattering Pique aside with an elbow as he flew through the air, Puyol had timed a brilliant run into the box, and his momentum delivered an unstoppable header past Manuel Neuer.

It was Puyol's third goal in 91 caps, but it was the goal of an on-field general.

This season, Barcelona has failed to win a domestic league match or cup match on five occasions. The only absentee in all five cases was Puyol. He was not on the field this past weekend against Sporting, when the battling Asturians held the La Liga leader to a 1-1 tie. Had he been, there is little doubt that Sporting forward David Barral's electric dash would have been halted. With Alves upfield, Pique was pulled out of position and left flat-footed by Barral's run into the box. Gabriel Milito was guilty of ball-watching; Puyol would have put player and globe into the stands long before Barral had shaped to shoot.

Wenger and his staff have probably worn out the tape of Barral's goal, and will have noted the space that opens up when Alves and Maxwell attack. If Barca keeps the ball -- it has overall possession of 78 percent in this year's Champions League -- there is no problem. If Arsenal can snatch possession, those spaces provide fertile ground for runners such as Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin and, if fit, Samir Nasri. The marauding Barca fullbacks are dangerous only if the ball reaches them first.

As Villa told reporters of his old side after the weekend's match: "[Sporting] managed to do what all sides try to but usually can't manage. They suffocated our midfield and did not allow Andres Iniesta or Xavi to play their game."

Arsenal's midfield is quite capable of the same; Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere can play a physical game if necessary. Robin Van Persie is in a rich vein of form. Eric Abidal will likely come into central defense to partner the Catalan, leaving the center of Barca's defense lacking a little mobility. Pique is also one caution away from missing the return leg, which will do little to dissuade Arsenal from drawing fouls whenever possible.

Wenger said on Monday that he would seek to attack the visitor, and Barca will try to impose its passing rhythm from the whistle. With so much pace on the field, much will depend on the two sides' back four. Shorn of the reassuring presence of its captain, Barca is at a disadvantage -- at least in this one area.



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