Sam Wallace: Everyone wants to be like Barça but if Arsenal play the team and not the myth they might just win

Talking Football: Around all successful teams there develops a mystique which can so easily blind us from some enduring truths, and Barcelona are no different
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The Independent Online

Barcelona almost lost a game on Saturday night and if you think they looked good when they beat Real Madrid 5-0 in December you should have seen them when they were a goal down against Sporting Gijon with 15 minutes to play.

For Gijon, who took the lead in the first half and ended Barcelona's 16-game La Liga winning streak with a 1-1 draw, the closing stages were, to put it mildly, an intense experience.

Gijon repelled one Barça attack only for another to materialise immediately. It was, as football reporters of yesteryear used to write, like the Alamo. But this was the Alamo in 3-D, with James Cameron directing.

Barcelona are a wonderful team and all the more admirable that when they line up at the Emirates on Wednesday they will probably have seven players in their first XI who were nurtured by the club's legendary youth system. Not only that, but Barcelona can also claim to have developed the best player on the opposition side too, that Catalan-in-exile Cesc Fabregas.

These days everyone wants their club to be like Barcelona. They want the youth-team kids who become superstars; they want the virtuoso football; they want the ownership model of fans as shareholders. They want the charity shirt sponsorship (albeit discontinued this summer). They want the home-grown coach and his success.

Barcelona are the foremost team of this generation and they pretty much won the World Cup for Spain last year with a bit of help from three Real Madrid players and the Villarreal left-back. But they are not unbeatable and Arsenal are one of the best qualified teams to remember that, on Wednesday, they have to play the 11 men on the pitch - not their reputation.

It is not hard to see why Barcelona have this indomitable image. Their best player, Lionel Messi, is just 23 and could go on for another 10 years, and the received wisdom is that are many more to come from the academy – for instance, the defender Marc Muniesa and the Brazilians Jonathan dos Santos and Thiago Alcantara.

But around all successful teams there develops a mystique that can so easily blind us from some enduring truths, and Barcelona are no different. Yes, they have brought through some wonderful players from childhood to maturity – more than any other major club in recent years – but producing elite young footballers is an inexact science. Like Manchester United in the 1990s or West Ham in the early part of the last decade, one club can produce a generation of great players and then the well of talent runs dry for no obvious reason.

Barcelona have come closest to cracking the code and their system is rightly held up as a model for others. But they are not the only European club investing money and time in producing high-quality young players. No club develops an elite young player without a lot of hard work and dedication but few would doubt that it also requires a degree of luck to hit upon a rich seam of young talent.

Like all the other great dynasties of European football – Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Milan – these cycles of success do not last forever and we should guard against thinking that Barcelona have hit upon a magic formula.

They spend a lot of money too. The club has debts of approximately £365m and David Villa, interviewed in The Independent today, cost £34m – much more than Arsenal's highest transfer fee.

It should not be forgotten that, with Real Madrid, Barcelona carve up the television income in Spain in a far more iniquitous way than England's leading clubs share the Premier League's broadcast deals. In England, for every £1.50 earned by the Premier League's top club those at the bottom get £1. In Spain it is a €80: €1 ratio in earnings from television revenue between the top and bottom.

Although it is a tough case to make there is just part of me that thinks Arsenal will overcome Barcelona over two legs in the Champions League. They have encountered Barça at close quarters before and have no reason to stand in the tunnel wide-eyed when their opponents emerge from the away dressing room, superstar by superstar.

It should be remembered that in the 4-1 defeat Arsène Wenger's team endured at the Nou Camp last season Arsenal had no Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Andrei Arshavin or Alex Song. Pitting Mikaël Silvestre against Messi was Wenger's last resort and it turned out to be a disaster for Arsenal.

They might have fewer injuries this time but there are also reasons to fear for Arsenal over the two games. The doubts about their central defensive pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou persist and the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is inexperienced. But if Samir Nasri is fit to play on Wednesday, and they can win at the Emirates, then it is not impossible to see them getting through at the Nou Camp on 8 March.

Not since his return from rupturing his ligaments in that Netherlands friendly in November 2009 has Van Persie played so well – and as consistently – as he is now. There will be no Carles Puyol on Wednesday and that will mean shuffling Eric Abidal over from left-back to cover. On Saturday night Gerard Pique did not look as composed, and more seasoned Barça observers put that down to the absence of Puyol.

Which brings us back to Sporting Gijon whose point earned against Barcelona on Saturday night is all the more impressive for their relative impoverishment. While Gijon's nerve eventually faltered, they showed Arsenal a brief glimpse of Barcelona's vulnerability. On Wednesday we can expect Arsenal to be braver, bolder and to play the team rather than the invincible football behemoth some would have us believe in.

Elite development will hit small clubs but is a necessity

The Premier League's "elite performance plan" for academies will be launched today with lots of radical measures open to discussion. The one most likely to get the Football League running scared is a proposal to scrap the geographical limitations in which clubs can scout young players.

It is tough on those smaller clubs who hope that they can unearth a young gem in their locality and sell him on, and there will have to be some concessions made. But the clue is in the name. If we want an elite system then we have to find a way for the best players to be developed at the best club academies. Lest we forget, it is not even eight months since that young Germany team beat England in Bloemfontein.

McClaren deserves credit for bravery – not more sneers

Steve McClaren found himself out of a job last week but he has been in that position before and the prospect of a few months out of work after his parting of the ways with Wolfsburg will not hold any fears for English coaching's "Comeback Kid".

At 49, McClaren still has plenty of time left in the game and with the 2010 Dutch title on his CV it will be intriguing to see where he surfaces next. For some the temptation will be, as always, to sneer and dismiss him as having failed again. But McClaren is treading a brave path – one that few other English coaches have attempted – and will undoubtedly be a better coach for it all.



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