Arsenal’s prospects of toppling Champions League holders Barcelona ahead of their Round-of-16 series getting underway were not exactly encouraging, but ahead of next week’s second leg even the most optimistic Gunners fan will struggle to hold out hope of progress.
A 2-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium two weeks ago, means Arsenal will travel to the Camp Nou next Wednesday facing an ominous task if they are to avoid exiting the Champions League at the last 16 stage for the sixth consecutive season. Neither history nor recent form is in the London side’s favor.
That loss handed to them by a Lionel Messi brace precipitated a wretched run of form for Arsenal in the Premier League. A run of just a single point from matches against Manchester United, Swansea City and Tottenham has left Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge hanging by a thread, having fallen eight points adrift of leaders Leicester City. A 4-0 win over Hull City in an FA Cup fifth round replay on Tuesday has done little to lift the gloom, with one banner in the crowd capturing the mood of some Arsenal fans by suggesting that Wenger’s time at the club should be brought to an end.
The feeling could not be more different in Barcelona. With a 4-0 win at Eibar on Sunday, the Catalan side set a new Spanish record of 35 matches unbeaten. They have also now won 17 matches in succession, excluding a 1-1 draw with Valencia in a Copa del Rey second leg that had been rendered meaningless.
The win over Eibar also brought up another milestone. With another double for Messi and a further strike from Luis Suarez, the famed attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar took their goal-scoring tally for the season to 100 goals, with still more than two months of the campaign remaining. Simply stopping the trio from scoring promises to be a major test for Arsenal, given that only one side has achieved that feat so far this season.
History will provide little comfort for Arsenal, either. Barcelona have never lost a tie in Europe’s premier competition after winning the first leg away from home, while Arsenal have never overturned a home first-leg loss in any European competition. In each of the last three seasons, Arsenal exited the competition at this stage having failed to come back from a first-leg defeat at the Emirates, twice against Bayern Munich and last year against Monaco. Moreover, on their last two visits to the Camp Nou, in 2010 and 2011, Arsenal were unable to progress despite recording a 2-2 draw and then a 2-1 victory in the first legs.
Some minor encouragement for Arsenal will come from the absence for the second leg of key Barcelona center-back Gerard Pique through suspension. But Luis Enrique’s side will have Arda Turan available to make his Champions League debut for the club after he served a suspension in the first leg.
And Arsenal have plenty of selection issues of their own. As well as still missing Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla to long-term issues, their injury list has flared up again in recent days. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains ruled out following an injury suffered in a challenge with Javier Mascherano in last month’s first leg, while influential goalkeeper Petr Cech is now sidelined with a calf problem.
The win over Hull came at a significant cost, too, with Aaron Ramsey, Gabriel and Per Mertesacker all picking up injuries. Although Mertesacker should quickly be back in action after suffering a cut near his eye, the prognosis for Gabriel and particularly Ramsey is more concerning. Wenger has also yet to welcome back center-back Lauren Koscielny from a calf injury.