Arsenal v Barcelona: Gunners looking for weaknesses in “nearly perfect” Barca
Arsenal take on Barcelona in the first leg of their last 16 Uefa Champions League tie at the Emirates Stadium tonight.
The Gunners have exited at this stage in the competition for the last five years.
To have any chance of progressing Arsenal will have to improve their recent home form in the last 16.
The Gunners have lost the first leg at home in each of their last three round of 16 ties – against Bayern München (2013, 2014) and AS Monaco (2015).
Arsenal qualified for the last 16 the hard way this season. Losing their first two matches to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos, before turning that form on its head with 2-0 victory over one of the competition favourites Bayern Munchen at the Emirates Stadium.
It’s that type of performance that Arsenal will be looking for tonight against Barcelona. That night against Bayern the Gunners produced a resilient defensive performance and took their chances late on to secure the win. Of course Arsenal were thumped 5-1 when the sides met for the second time in Munich.
Arsene Wenger has indicated in the build up to the match that Arsenal will adopt (be forced) a similar approach to the home match with Bayern. Sitting deeper will also protect Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace, but will demand defensive discipline from the Arsenal defensive midfielders – likely to be Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey.
Going forward Arsenal will be looking to their big name signings Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to perform.
Sanchez, as a former Barcelona player, will be desperate to make his mark on the tie after some below par recent displays since returning from a two-month injury lay-off.
Ozil, has experience of facing Barcelona from his time at Real Madrid and provides Arsenal with the guile and class they arguably lacked in their previous meetings with the Catalan giants.
The Gunners will need to exploit their likely aerial advantage over Barca from set-pieces. Giroud, Mertesacker and Koscielny are all a threat, if Ozil can get his delivery right.
There have also been murmurings in the Spanish press about Barcelona fatigue amid Luis Enrique’s reluctance to rotate his squad and the fact that they have played 16 games since December 30th, compared to ten for Arsenal, and could be a factor.
Barcelona have yet to win at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal though have lost their two previous two-legged knockout ties against Barcelona, who also won in England at this stage of the competition in 2014 and 2015.
Arsenal came from behind to beat Barcelona when the teams last met in London in the 2010/11 round of 16, Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin overturning David Villa’s first-half goal.
Barcelona recovered with a 3-1 win in which Lionel Messi scored twice. Sergio Busquets had briefly given Arsenal hope with an own goal that made it 1-1.
The previous season Messi scored all four Barcelona goals in a 4-1 victory over the Gunners. Arsenal had given themselves hope in the first leg by coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 through Theo Walcott and Cesc Fàbregas (penalty).
“No team is perfect, but Barcelona are not far from it. We need to take our chances. We will have less of the ball than against Hull, but we have to make the most of it.
They have top strikers. Maybe they look like they are having a little bit less possession at the moment because they used to have Xavi in midfield. They have a team that can score at any moment. Even when they are being dominated they are still very dangerous. They did that in the final last year against Juventus when it was 1-1. They were suffering but they took their chances when they arrived.
I knew Luis Enrique as a player. He scored against us at Wembley in the Champions League. He has done a remarkable job because he arrived with scepticism around him and won the treble in his first year.
I remember we played the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2006 and Messi was injured for that game. It’s remarkable that was ten years ago and what he has achieved in that time.”
“On paper this is one of the most attractive and appealing games if you like this kind of football. Arsenal are a good team, strong in the transition and with really good players up front. They will press high at times but I hope we can keep the ball in their half and impose our own game.
Being labelled favourites means nothing. We have to prove ourselves game after game and we are going to try to. If we get a good score tomorrow that would be fantastic, but we have a lot of confidence going into the second leg whatever happens.
I am delighted to have such a good front three, and also with the squad as a whole. They are all the chosen ones because they are fantastic. I’m absolutely delighted to be their manager. I just say ‘abracadabra’ and the magic sparks.
Petr Cech and Lionel Messi are likely to take centre stage over the two legs.
In six previous meetings between the pair, when Čech was at Chelsea, Messi has never beaten the Arsenal goalkeeper.
He has missed penalties, hit the frame of the goal and never quite got over the line – even though Barcelona prevailed in two of the three knockout ties both players featured in.
“It’s great,” said Čech, whose previous encounters all came in a Chelsea shirt. “Not many can say they’ve played … against Messi and he hasn’t found a way to get past. But if he scores and we progress then it’s not really important. If he scores a hat-trick and we go through then I won’t mind.”
Arsenal Čech; Bellerín, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Coquelin; Walcott, Özil, Sánchez; Giroud.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitić, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
Arsenal to pull off 2-1 win
Referee Cüneyt Çakır (TUR)
Assistant referee Bahattin Duran (TUR) , Tarik Ongun (TUR)
Additional assistant referee Hüseyin Göçek (TUR) , Barış Şimşek (TUR)
Fourth official Çem Satman (TUR)
UEFA Delegate Jim Stjerne Hansen (DEN)
UEFA Referee observer Peter Fröjdfeldt (SWE)