I was going to write a preview of the game, but Graham Hunter says everything I wanted to say anyway. I especially recommend this paragraph:
Barcelona is coping with a physical and mental low at the moment because it deliberately plans a time-release fitness program which allows it to peak in explosive power, energy and mental focus during two key periods -- mid-winter and mid-spring. Guardiola's team has also had to put up with injuries to Valdes, Puyol and Xavi -- three absolute lynchpin footballers. Add to that Pique's suspension on Tuesday. If in these circumstances they overturn a 2-1 deficit and power into the last eight, Barca will be viewed as a favorite, if not the favorite, to win the Champions League. It would be Barca's third European crown in five years. You could forgive fans in London, Manchester, Munich and Milan if they are cheering for Arsenal.
Prior to Carles Puyol being ruled out with a knee injury, I was becoming increasingly optimistic about Barca’s chances because of their track record under Pep Guardiola. In each of his two previous seasons, Barca have scuffled in January and February as they start from scratch in terms of their fitness regimen. Even in the year in which Barca won the treble, they lost consecutive league matches at Atletico and then at home against then-last place Espanyol, sandwiching an unimpressive 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Champions League round of sixteen tie against Lyon. When the calendar turned to March, Barca destroyed Lyon at home and was off and running. March has been a better month for the Blaugrana than January and February.
The major issue that Barca face in the match is that they will be without their first-choice center backs. There is a precedent for Barca turning in good performances with a makeshift back line. In the Champions League Final in Rome, Barca were without two of their first-choice defenders, forcing Guardiola to field 35-year old reserve Sylvinho (a former Arsenal player) at left back, Puyol at right back, and defensive midfielder Yaya Toure at center back. The back line performed brilliantly. That said, if Pique and Puyol are the key members, they were on the pitch in Rome and will not be around tonight. Both were immense in that match. As Sid Lowe notes in his pre-match piece on Guardiola, Barca’s defense starts up front rather than in the back:
"We play in the other team's half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half," [Guardiola] says. "We're a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I'd rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours." The stats bear that out: Dani Alves makes the fourth highest number of touches in the opposition half in La Liga. He is a full-back. Typically, only the two centre-backs and the goalkeeper spend more than 50% of the game in their own half.
Then there is possession: the top nine passers in La Liga are all Barcelona players. But that is not just an attacking option, it is a defensive one too. "There is no rule like in basketball that says you have to hand over possession or shoot after a certain amount of time, so 'attack' and 'defence' don't exist," Lillo says. Not in Barcelona's model. Barcelona attack to defend; when they lost to Arsenal, Guardiola was angry with Alves not for attacking too much but for attacking badly. That Barcelona lost because they were caught up the pitch is one reading; Guardiola's reading is that had they scored they would not have been caught on the break.
Oddly, though, my bigger concern going into the game is not how a left back (Eric Abidal) and a defensive midfielder (Sergio Busquets) will perform as the center backs, but rather how Javier Mascherano will play. Mascherano has been a disappointment so far in Catalunya, as the team looks less fluid when he’s in the game. To a certain extent, this is natural, as there can’t be a more jarring experience than going from playing for Rafa Benitez to Pep Guardiola. Tonight, Mascherano has to show the fluidity that some of his backers in South America (Tim Vickery among them) swear he has. He’s certainly familiar with Arsenal and how the Gunners play. On the other hand, he’s a combustible player in a high-pressure match against a capable, possession-based midfield. Anything is possible. Five-star performance? Red card? Both?