22 February 2016

The Turkish Trickster who will turn back the tide against Barça...

Yes, we sleep-walked through a draw against Hull this weekend, but—let's face it—we did so without the wonderful workings of a Turkish talisman on whom we've come to depend in our hour of need. Without him, we seem pedestrian, ordinary, banal; we lack any real insight into the inner workings of the match. Against Barça in this first leg, though, the restoration of this erstwhile Ottoman magician, umlaut and all, will be in full pomp. With him on the pitch, Arsenal's ambitions are restored. His efforts might not be quite enough to turn away the juggernaut that is Barça's three-headed hydra, but Cüneyt Çakır has done just enough to earn a special spot in Gooners' hearts.

For those short on memory and with a yearning for portents, it was none other than Çakır who presided over our famous 2-0 win over Bayern back in October's group-stage. He seems to call it by the books, issuing yellow cards freely but reds more frugally. In this season's group-stage, he's shown 17 cautions but no straight reds with one second-yellow sending-off. For those with a keen eye for patterns where none may in fact exist, he did issue three yellows against Barça against just one against AS Roma. Maybe he favors the underdog.

More likely, he likes to exert some degree of control over a match, giving no quarter to questionable tactics, be they fouls or dives. The floppier among us on Tuesday had best be on our best behaviour—Neymar, Suárez, I'm looking squarely at you, athough, come to think of it, Coquelin and Koscielny, you're also on notice albeit for the fouling rather than the flopping variety. Çakır does like to issue cautions, and, for what it's worth, Alves has three and Piqué has two. They, along with Neymar and Suárez, will have to mind their manners. Long may that serve our interests.

Mind you, I have no delusions of progressing deeper into the Champions League. Let's face facts: if we can avoid a thrashing in this or the second leg, I'll be satisfied. Barça, with Neymar, Messi, and Suárez, are bossing La Liga quite convincingly. When Lionel Messi is your squad's third option, you know that your squad is on the right track. Neymar and Suárez have outscored Messi thus far, and while I'd love to predict that Monreal will pocket Neymar, Kos will pocket Suárez, and Bellerín will do the same to Messi, we know that their attack is much-more fluid and potent than that.

If we're to pin our slender hopes to anything, it's to the notion that Barça have glutted themselves so often at the trough of inferior competition that they'll come in a bit jaded and diffident, and that an ageing squad no longer has the legs, lungs, or lust for another trophy. Slender hopes indeed.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that we sit back, defend in numbers, and hit hard on counters, much as we did against Bayern and Man City when we faced off against superior squads and longer odds. With a certain Turkish talisman eyeing up options, we could very well surprise those who predict a proper drubbing. Mesut Özil, who's faced Barça numerous times during his pre-Gunner galáctico days, knows how to spring a counter-attack. Alexis, who's trained and practiced against many of these blaugranas, knows how to finish them.

The soft bigotry of low expectations suggests that we'll be lucky to escape with a moral victory, something along the lines of a 1-4 or 0-5 scoreline. Something tells me we'll be able to push a bit beyond that. This squad has a habit, however unfortunate at times, of playing down to or up to the level of its competition. We saw it on Saturday. If we see it again on Tuesday, well, that's another story altogether.