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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Nitol for Tyldesley

Is the Champions League interesting again? Clive Tyldesley’s worst nightmare may yet manifest itself this week as a defence-less Arsenal take on a defence-less Barcelona – so that’s basically Messi vs Bendtner – and a Rooney-less Manchester United take on a Bayern Munich with added Robben. There may be no English team in the semis for the first time since 2003.

Arsenal’s game with Barcelona last week produced a sublime game of football. Arsenal weren’t punched, kicked or shoved off the ball, even if Fabregas did suffer from the cruncher’s calling card with a broken leg. They were comprehensively outplayed. Barcelona tonight are a different side and talk abounds over the impact Walcott made when he came on, but it is conveniently forgotten he was near anonymous again at the weekend against Wolves.

Two additional factors have been equally ignored. Firstly, while Barca’s defence is rearranged and perhaps a bit sluggish, Walcott has to decide what to do when he gets near the goal, a process that has never been his strong point. He might not even start. Secondly, Barcelona have Lionel Messi and he was quiet at the Emirates. He is rarely quiet for long.

While you can talk up Arsenal’s chances, should you so desire, with fantasies of speed and attacking panache, any assessment of Manchester United’s forthcoming fixture feels like it has to be made with a similar malaise to that sweeping over the team since they took the lead in Germany. Sluggish against Bayern, weary against Chelsea, this is not a United team solely undermined by the loss of Rooney.

United’s only ever-present, Patrice Evra, looks leggy and tired, which is not only a defensive problem as he poses a significant attacking threat. Darren Fletcher, also one of United’s most regular and influential performers could not get close to Bayern’s centre backs and van Bommel as they strode forward last week, and could not stamp his authority on Lampard and Malouda at Old Trafford. This isn’t a crisis for United, but the team aren’t enjoying the same conviction with which they brushed aside Bolton without Rooney. While they are weaker, Bayern are stronger. Two wins out of two and a returning winger bound to give United problems, whether it be Neville or Rafael. It will be tight. Tyldesley will not be sleeping easily.

A few other people having nightmares this week will be those who thought crazy topless fat men were a thing of the Premier League past. Newcastle are back in the top flight, which is good news because we’ll all need something else to laugh at when Liverpool aren’t as useless next season. Well done Chris Hughton and welcome back. Except you, Joey Barton. Rob MacDonald

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