Barcelona a monumental task for The Gunners as a legend returns
By Jonny Payne.
It could surely not have been much worse. Arsenal were today drawn against the holders, Barcelona, in what is set to be a mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final.
It is the Barcelona that comprehensively beat Manchester United in last year’s final, the Barcelona that have arguably the best player in the world, and the Barcelona that ended Arsenal’s dream of lifting the trophy in 2006. Arsene Wenger said:
“It will be an interesting and exciting game…When you get to the quarter-finals of the Champions League you play good teams and Barcelona are a good team.”
Former Arsenal player Charlie Nicholas told Sky Sports:
“It’s going to be a proper football match you can guarantee that, two teams who just love to be expressive and love to go forward.”
The draw brings together two teams with a similar ethos. Both play free-flowing, attractive football, and both have successful records of turning young hopefuls into genuinely world-class talent.
One of those to be turned from a raw youngster to a world-class player by Arsene Wenger is Thierry Henry. Now at Barcelona, Arsenal’s record-goalscorer and former captain will not be looking forward to facing his old team.
In an interview with The Times earlier this month, he said:
“I’ll be an Arsenal fan until I die and if you ask me how that makes me feel about the possibility that Barcelona might meet Arsenal in the next round of the Champions League should we both qualify, I have to say I find the idea unthinkable.
“It’s always the same on the day of a Champions League draw. Until I see that Arsenal have been paired with another team, I can’t breathe. Proud though I am to be a Barcelona player, I dread the thought of having to oppose Arsenal. I would hate it. I pray for it not to happen.”
But it has now happened, and it is set to be an emotional return for the Frenchman. Handball or not, he will surely be given a warm welcome from the Arsenal fans.
The one thing arguably in Arsenal’s favour is that they play the second leg away. With away goals so crucial, if the Gunners can shut up shop at home, admittedly a daunting task, the pressure will be on Barcelona not to concede at home in the second leg.
If Arsenal do overcome the monumental task of beating the Spanish, European and World Club Champions, waiting for them in the semi-finals could be Inter Milan, who dispatched Chelsea so admirably in the last round.
A win in the semi-final could then lead to an all-English final with Manchester United, but Wenger is reluctant to think that far ahead. He said:
“You can only take one step at a time, of course the road is not easy, I concede that, but I believe the best way to be successful in the quarter final is to get into this competition in good condition and with a strong belief.”
As well as Henry’s return, it will be another emotional occasion for Arsenal’s Catalan captain, Cesc Fabregas, who has been linked constantly with a return to his boyhood club. He will surely want to show them what they are missing and Nicholas believes he will relish playing against two of his heroes, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
The former Arsenal striker said:
“What a cracking draw it is for Fabregas, to play against the two guys he’s admired so much and the club that’s been linked with him so often.”
So which players should Arsenal be wary of? Most teams have one or two dangermen to look after, Barcelona however have a wealth of potential match-winners. Lionel Messi once again affirmed his status as World Player of the Year with a hat-trick against Valencia at the weekend and two goals against Stuttgart in mid-week.
While fellow youth products Andres Iniesta – who has been called the “best player in the world” by Wayne Rooney – and Xavi Hernandez, continue to pull the strings from midfield. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – now the most expensive player in the world in the baffling deal that sent Samuel Eto’o to Inter Milan – has not fitted in as well as some would like, but the Swede has an array of skills and can create something out of nothing.
There is also the lesser-known Pedro Rodriguez, another product of Barca’s academy, who has impressed this season amassing 21 goals from the wings and scoring in every competition he has played.
Shielding the defence will be one of two players linked to Arsenal in recent years. Sergio Busquets – another Catalan product – has ousted Yaya Toure from the starting line-up in recent months, but both are very effective in helping out the defence while those ahead can strut their stuff.
The defence is Barcelona’s weak link. The marauding right-back Dani Alves could be caught out defensively and the long-term injury to left-back Eric Abidal has seen Maxwell fill in, who was recruited primarily as a squad player. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique – once of Manchester United – make-up an all-Catalan central defensive partnership, and although they are undoubtedly good players, they can look far from convincing at times. It is an area the likes of Andrey Arshavin, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott could exploit.
The 2006 Champions League Final was eagerly anticipated as a game of flair against finesse, but the early sending off of Jens Lehmann spoilt the spectacle between the two sides, which didn’t allow for the expansive match that could occur this time around. On the other hand, with so much attacking talent, both sides could cancel each other out.
One thing is certain, however, if Arsenal can overcome the Catalan challenge then the players will know they can beat anybody and the red half of North London can dare to dream.
What do you think of Arsenal’s chances? Will Barca prove too good? Please leave your comments below…….
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