Arsene Wenger is calling for a more mature performance from his Arsenal side as they seek to tame what he calls “the most efficient” strike force in the world and end a run of five consecutive Round-of-16 exits in the Champions League.
Arsenal will face defending champions Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday in the first leg of their last 16 tie. It is a round that has brought plenty of frustration in recent times, with a familiar pattern derailing Arsenal’s hopes of making it back the quarterfinals. In each of the last three seasons, Arsenal have lost the first leg at home, leaving themselves too much to do in the return match.
“We have a good opportunity to show that we have learned, because it’s true that we gave ourselves a difficult task every time after the first home leg, maybe because we were a bit too keen to make the difference in the first game,” Wenger said in his pre-match press conference. “Therefore we have to find right balance between being audacious and strong defensively as a unit and not put ourselves in front of a very diff task in second leg.”
Arsenal can at least count on plenty of experience of facing off with Barcelona. It was the Catalans who were the victors in Arsenal’s only trip to a Champions League final, in 2006, while they also came out on top in the quarterfinals and the Round of 16 in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Yet Wenger is well aware that this current Barcelona incarnation is a very different beast. Where once they dominated through possession, they now pose an unmatched threat up front through Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar. Between the trio they already have 91 goals this season.
“They are the most efficient,” Wenger said. “They are top, top class. At the moment they have a team that at any moment they can score. Even when they are dominated they are still very dangerous.”
To combat that threat, Wenger has made it clear that Arsenal will have to be far more ruthless than in a goalless draw at home to second-tier Hull City in the FA Cup on Saturday.
“No team is perfect, they are not far from it Barcelona, I must say,” he added. “We have to use every moment in the game where we have a chance to score. Against hull we had 70 percent of the ball and didn’t make a lot of it. Against Barcelona we’ll have much less of the ball and we have to make more of it.”
Barcelona, similarly, didn’t enjoy their finest performance over the weekend. However, a narrow 2-1 win over Las Palmas was still sufficient to move eight points clear at the top of La Liga and extend an unbeaten run in all competitions that stretches back to October. As well as being primed to defend their La Liga crown, Luis Enrique’s side are also favorites to become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the European Cup.
“Our objective is to reconfirm our status as reigning champions and underline last year’s triumph,” Enrique said on Monday, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “For that reason there is an extra dose of motivation which we hope to transform into a good game tomorrow.”
Still, Enrique, who scored both home and away against Arsenal in the 1999-2000 Champions League group stage, is expecting an entertaining clash in his first visit to the Emirates as a player or coach.
“Arsenal have the potential to dominate their matches,” he said. “For the styles of both teams, it could be one of the most attractive games. I think tomorrow we will see a great, competitive game of football.”
Barcelona’s only major absentee is Arda Turan, who is prevented from making his Champions League debut for the Catalans as a result of a suspension picked up for a sending off for Atlético Madrid in last season’s quarterfinals. Arsenal have no new injury worries, but remain without Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Gabriel and Mikel Arteta.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes