When Arsenal were handed the draw no team wanted, a meeting with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, they must have hoped that by the time it came to the teams actually squaring off, injuries, a loss of form or some other outside force would have come to their aid. Now, just five days ahead of their first leg at the Emirates Stadium, those hopes appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Indeed, if anything, the Catalans look an even formidable task now than was the case two months ago. It was, after all, only this past Sunday that Barcelona produced one of the best halves of soccer witnessed in some time. Going into the halftime interval at Celta Vigo, Barcelona were being held 1-1. By the time the final whistle had blown, the score board read 6-1 in favor of the visitors, after Barcelona simply bamboozled their hosts. Luis Suárez bagged a hat-trick, with his most talked about goal coming after Lionel Messi tried something rarely seen in the history of top-level competition–electing not to shoot from a penalty, but pass.
In terms of pure skill, it wasn’t the most spectacular moment witnessed that evening. Yet it represented so much of what has made Barcelona’s forward trio arguably the most devastating in the history of the sport. Not only was Messi willing to give up a goal, his 300th in La Liga no less, but Neymar, the man who the penalty pass had actually been intended for, had no problem celebrating after Suárez had seemingly unwittingly snatched the goal away from him.
They may be the three best players in the world right now as individuals, but it is the exceptional levels of camaraderie and understanding that has made them such a powerful combined force. It is why they are hot favorites right now to become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the European Cup, and why their odds are ridiculously short to win an unprecedented back-to-back treble.
Already in the final of the Copa del Rey, Barcelona also sit six points clear at the top of La Liga. Excluding a backup lineup’s 1-1 draw with Valencia when already up 7-0 from the first leg of their Copa semifinal, Barcelona have won their last 12 matches, scoring 43 goals in the process. The 6-1 demolition of Celta Vigo was followed up by a 3-1 win at Sporting Gijon, in which Messi did get his 300th, and 301st, La Liga goal, while Suárez moved onto 35 goals for the season. Between Suárez, Messi and Neymar, they have already found the net 83 times.
That is the task that awaits Arsenal next Tuesday. History will provide no comfort, either, for manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal have lost at the Round-of-16 stage of the Champions League for the last five seasons and they have been ousted from the competition by Barcelona twice in the last six.
Still, as things stand ahead of their FA Cup fifth round contest with Hull City on Saturday, Arsenal have reason to be in a positive frame of mind. Last week, they faced a crucial match with surprise Premier League leaders Leicester City and came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 thanks to a goal in the dying seconds of injury time from Danny Welbeck. It means Arsenal trail Leicester by just two points and have a first Premier League title in 12 years firmly in their sights.
Given that scenario, it would be understandable for the Premier League to take priority in the mind of Wenger and his squad this campaign. And, paradoxically, seeing the Champions League effectively as a bonus could work in Arsenal’s favor. Over recent seasons, Arsenal have had trouble when the pressure is on, losing the first leg at home in the Champions League last 16 in each of the last three seasons, before performing much better when the cause was all but lost in the return match.
With the pressure potentially off from the start this time, Arsenal could flourish. To do that, though, they will have to conquer the greatest challenge around.