Arsene Wenger knows full well the challenge of taking down the might of Barcelona, having seen his Arsenal side ousted from the Champions League by the Catalans in both 2010 and 2011. Yet for all the majesty of those Pep Guardiola-led teams, Arsenal will not have faced anything quite like the Barcelona they are likely to come up against at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday in their Round-of-16 first leg.
If playing against Guardiola’s teams, symbolized by the midfield metronome Xavi, was a case of death by a thousand cuts, this current version has the ability to put any team’s lights out in the blink of an eye. While Barcelona can still keep hold of the ball just fine, as demonstrated by being second only to Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in possession percentage in this season’s Champions League, the attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar is unlike anything the world has seen before.
After Arsenal were held to a scoreless result at home to second-tier Hull City in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, Wenger exited his press conference by saying that he was rushing home to watch Barcelona in action against Las Palmas. He may well have been comforted with what he saw. Barcelona, after all, had only squeaked out a narrow 2-1 win over a team currently in the relegation zone.
Yet if there was some obvious local favoritism evident in the headline of Barcelona-based publication Sport the next day, there was also plenty of truth.
“Wenger, don’t get too excited, we were snoozing,” it read.
Sunday's cover: Wenger, don't get too excited, we were snoozing... https://t.co/6O0HFXhjBP
— SPORT English (@Sport_EN) February 20, 2016
Victory still means that Barcelona will arrive in London on a 13-match winning streak, ignoring a 1-1 draw with Valencia in a Copa del Rey tie that had already been ended with a 7-0 first leg win for the Catalans. In those 13 matches, Barcelona have scored 43 goals—an average of more than three per game.
Rather than slowing up as would be understandable after winning the treble last season, Barcelona are arguably sharper than ever. They are strong favorites to become the first club in the Champions League era to retain the European Cup. And much of that is down to the front three, which, with goals from Suárez and Neymar on Saturday, took their combined tally for the season to 91 goals.
While Barcelona put themselves in the mix to be recognized as the greatest club of all time in the years when they beat Arsenal in the quarterfinals and Round of 16 in consecutive seasons, Suárez’s arrival has given them a whole extra dimension. Now, as well as silky passing and dribbling, they have the ability to go more direct and stretch a team in behind, opening up space for Messi to be even more effective.
Wenger will need no reminding of Suárez’s qualities. He tried to bring the Uruguayan to the Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2013 when Arsenal famously submitted a bid to Liverpool of £40 million and £1, believing erroneously that it would trigger a release clause. At the time, Suárez was desperate to go, but some words from then-captain Steven Gerrard helping to smooth over his enforced stay. Gerrard told Suárez that if he remained at Anfield and continued to perform then bigger clubs than Arsenal, like Barcelona, would come calling.
He was right. The following summer Suárez made the move to the Camp Nou and has been a bigger success than surely even he could have dreamt.
While Arsenal missed out on Suárez, the following summer they recruited another high-intensity, ultra-competitive South American forward, and from Barcelona to boot. Alexis Sánchez moved to the Emirates after three years at Barcelona in which he became the latest forward brought in to struggle to flourish lining up alongside the dominant presence of the world’s greatest player.
The Chilean was far from a disaster, scoring 19 La Liga goals in his final season. But he just never quite fit, certainly not when compared to Suárez.
It has been a very different story at Arsenal, where Sánchez has thrived upon being the main attacking force. He was Arsenal’s leading scorer in his first season, with 25 goals, and frequently the team’s savior. This season, though, he has just nine to date, in what has been a stop-start campaign. Having taken time to get going following a long summer helping Chile to their first ever international title at the Copa America, Sánchez was just getting into top gear when a hamstring injury at the end of November sidelined him for two months.
That rest may ultimately do the over-worked 27-year-old some good. Yet heading into Arsenal’s toughest test of the season, their key attacking threat has yet to get fully back up to speed, scoring just once in six games since his return. If there ever was a time for Sánchez to show the full range of his enormous talent then it is on Tuesday against the team that two years ago decided they could do better.
D: Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Coquelin, Ramsey
Walcott, Ozil, Sánchez
D: Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba
M: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Prediction: The big question going into the match is how Wenger will approach it tactically. Will he utilize the more cautious, counter-punching approach he has shown a greater willingness to employ over the past year, or, in front of his own fans, will he try to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona? There is a strong argument that Wenger would be wise to opt for a tactic he has rarely used before and employ two defensive-minded midfielders, perhaps selecting Mohamed Elneny alongside Francis Coquelin. If it is the forward-thinking Aaron Ramsey selected in the middle, Arsenal could be in trouble.
Barcelona’s quality is such that it is hard to envisage Arsenal keeping them out for 90 minutes. The one saving grace for Wenger is that Barcelona’s results have been less emphatic on the road than at home. That may keep the tie theoretically alive traveling to the Camp Nou in three weeks’ time.
Predicted score: Arsenal 1-2 Barcelona