Lee Dixon: Arsenal were chasing shadows before a Wenger masterstroke changed the game

The Weekend Dossier
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The midweek victories for Arsenal and Tottenham show how far both clubs have come, in different ways.

Tottenham took on the Serie A leaders Milan and showed no fear of playing at San Siro and got the result they wanted. A couple of years ago you would never have dreamed that might be possible.

Then Arsenal followed it with a fantastic win over Barcelona in which they showed their growing maturity and belief. We should not go overboard about the results, because both sides could end up going out in the second legs. But it was an incredible couple of days, and there was so much to celebrate in both performances.

For Tottenham to be able to go to Milan and get a deserved win like that says a huge amount about their confidence, their team play and their management set-up. It makes a huge statement, regardless of what happens in the game at White Hart Lane. You would like to think they would go through after that result in Milan, but even if they don't it still says a lot about their confidence and their team understanding. I never like to see players behave like some of Milan's did, but it was testament to the way Spurs had performed that their frustration eventually got the better of them.

I am a bit surprised that Milan are doing so well in Italy this season. I spoke to Clarence Seedorf a few months ago and he wasn't too confident about their prospects, so to see them leading Serie A is a little unexpected.

That takes nothing away from Spurs. This is not the first time this season they have beaten a very good side, I am thinking in particular of their win over Internazionale in the group stages. But this time they were without Gareth Bale and Luka Modric was only fit enough for the bench, so it was a remarkable achievement.

I have said for some time now that Harry Redknapp has all the attributes to be the next England manager when Fabio Capello leaves next year and his success in Europe this season only strengthens his case. It is a wonderful experience for him and should make him better prepared should he eventually succeed Capello.

Harry's teams are always confident in their strength going forward and that means that even if you are under the cosh, you know you can still get something from a game. It would be great to see England playing with that kind of belief.

It was exhilarating to be at the Emirates Stadium the following evening, to witness Arsenal pull off a very different type of victory. They were at home but literally got smashed all over the place for much of the first half. It must have been daunting but they put it behind them and came out in the second period and played really well. That says a lot about their progress as a team. They started well in the first 15 minutes but then for the next 30 Barcelona's movement ripped them to pieces. I was commentating on the game for Radio Five Live and at half-time I must admit I was worried because I thought a 5-1 scoreline to Barcelona would have been a fair reflection on the game so far. It was men against boys and I was trying to work out how Arsène Wenger could change things around.

But they did just that. They got to grips with it and stopped Barcelona's midfield playing nice little triangles in the middle of the pitch by putting more pressure on the ball. Also the wide players Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott stopped getting sucked into the centre and were able to prevent their full-backs moving forward so much. Then the Barcelona back four started to drop deeper and Arsenal were able to start trading blows with their visitors.

Suddenly the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets saw a bit less of the ball, and the full-backs Dani Alves and Maxwell were less in the game going forward.

In the first half Lionel Messi dropped deep and the Arsenal back four stood off, leaving the midfield outnumbered. But after the interval Laurent Koscielny started going with Messi and the little genius found it much harder to play.

Arsenal have generally been defending much better this season, although there have been a few blips like the recent 4-4 draw with Newcastle. That new defensive strength will be put to the test at the Nou Camp in the second leg, in front of 90,000 Barcelona fans, on a massive pitch.

I remember playing there in 1999, when we drew 1-1 in the Champions League group stages. It was a great draw but I can't say I enjoyed the experience, as I was up against Rivaldo, who back then was the World Player of the Year. Before the game the lads were winding me up, saying stuff like "I hope you got a good night's sleep last night". Even as the game kicked off they kept going, saying "Here he comes, Dicko". He got the ball from kick off and started running, went past Ray Parlour, nutmegged me and nearly scored. I don't think I touched the ball all night, I was just chasing around after Rivaldo. It was one of the hardest games of my career. At the final whistle I was just relieved it was over, and then I saw Ray go over and swap shirts with him. I was livid. But he was just doing it to wind me up and I got Rivaldo's shirt in the end.

I took it home and when I got back in the early hours of the following day I laid it at the foot of my son's bed. In the morning he woke up, saw Rivaldo's sweaty shirt and said, "What's that?" He might have been underwhelmed at the time but 11 years on he still has it, and wears it every now and then.

Hopefully both Spurs and Arsenal can go through now to the quarter-finals, where we could have four teams as Chelsea and Manchester United both have winnable ties, against FC Copenhagen and Marseilles respectively. Even if the two north London teams don't manage to progress, they have still demonstrated the great strides forward they have taken recently.

Five Asides

1. My advice to Crawley: Enjoy the day and try not to leak goals

Crawley Town have about a 10,000-to-one chance of winning at Old Trafford today, so the best advice I can give them is to enjoy it. I saw them beat Derby in the third round and you could almost sense an upset was on the cards. I don't think that will be the case today, so the best thing they can do is take it all in and celebrate their achievement. That will be a bit harder to do, of course, if United score three or four in the first 20 minutes.

2. Dodgy barnet aside, Ronaldo was a class act

One of the biggest regrets of my playing career is never having faced Ronaldo. In his heyday he was the best player in the world. He was deadly in front of goal, and he scored some absolute crackers. But he did also have the worst haircut in the history of football – far worse than a mullet.

3. Shinner or not, that was a very special goal

I have reviewed Wayne Rooney's goal last weekend against Manchester City from several different angles and I still can't work out if it's a "shinner" or not. Either way it was a fantastic goal.

4. Gattuso's punishment: two rounds with Joe

I don't know what could have riled Gennaro Gattuso so much that he would want to headbutt Joe Jordan. I was gobsmacked. I know Uefa are going to throw the book at him but perhaps a better punishment would be two rounds with Joe with the gloves on.

5. Wilshere is brilliant – and only 19 years old!

Jack Wilshere was the outstanding Arsenal player against Barcelona. How good is he, at only 19?

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Chelsea vs Everton

Fourth-round replay

Kick-off: Today, 12.30pm (ESPN; Highlights ITV1, 11.30pm)

Team news: Fernando Torres is Cup-tied for Chelsea so Didier Drogba returns. Louis Saha (hamstring) misses out for Everton, although Phil Jagielka may make a return.

Prediction: Home win

Birmingham City vs Sheffield Wednesday

Fifth round

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights ITV1, 11.30pm)

Team news: Birmingham's Martin Jiranek and Liam Ridgewell may be rested. Gary Madine is Cup-tied for Gary Megson's Owls, while Giles Coke begins a three-game suspension.

Prediction: Home win

Stoke City vs Brighton And Hove Albion

Fifth round

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights ITV1, 11.30pm)

Team news: Thomas Sorensen will take his place in the Stoke goal, although Matt Etherington is a doubt. Chris Wood and Matt Sparrow could return for League One leaders Brighton.

Prediction: Draw

Manchester United vs Crawley Today

Fifth round

Kick-off: Today, 5.15pm (ITV1; Highlights ITV1, 11.30pm)

Team news: Park Ji-sung (hamstring) is out for United, as are Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Crawley are without Scott Neilson (foot), John Dempster and Josh Simpson (Cup-tied).

Prediction: Home win

Manchester City vs Notts County

Fourth-round replay

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 2pm (ITV1; Highlights ITV1, 10.45pm)

Team news: James Milner (hamstring) and Nigel de Jong (ankle) are doubts for City, but Mario Balotelli returns. Lewis Gobern (thigh) is doubtful for County, while Alan Judge (foot) is out.

Prediction: Home win

Fulham vs Bolton Wanderers

Fifth round

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights ITV1, 10.45pm)

Team news: Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies should feature for Fulham despite suffering knocks. Bolton's Sam Ricketts (Achilles) is out, while Daniel Sturridge is Cup-tied.

Prediction: Away win

Leyton Orient vs Arsenal

Fifth round

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4.30pm (ESPN; Highlights ITV1, 10.45pm)

Team news: Matthew Spring (calf) is doubtful for Orient, while Adam Chambers (shin) is out. Arsenal have Abou Diaby suspended and Johan Djourou (back) unavailable.

Prediction: Away win

West Ham United vs Burnley

Fifth round

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (ESPN)

Team news: Thomas Hitzlsperger (thigh) finally makes his Hammers debut, eight months after joining. Charlie Austin and Marvin Bartley are both Cup-tied for Burnley, although David Edgar could feature.

Prediction: Home win

West Bromwich Albion vs Wolverhampton Wanderers

Premier League

Dixon's verdict: The change of manager failed to inspire West Brom last week as they threw away a three-goal lead against West Ham. I fear they could have to settle for a share of the spoils again here.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 12pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.55pm)

Prediction: Draw