When all is seemingly lost and gloom has descended upon the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal have so often produced their best in recent years. The hole Arsene Wenger finds himself in ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League Round-of-16 second leg at Barcelona, however, may be his deepest yet.
Not only is there the immediate challenge of having to overturn a 2-0 deficit against the European champions and favorites to become the first team to defend their crown in the Champions League era, but a need to repair a season heading for devastating failure. Just three weeks ago, Arsenal could look forward with relish to the task of testing themselves against Barcelona in the knowledge that even in failure they would still have a first Premier League title in 12 years in their sights, as well as a third successive FA Cup triumph.
But that first-leg loss last month, decided by two Lionel Messi goals, began a run of four defeats and just one win in six matches, which has raised the discontent at the club to levels not seen since they ended their long trophy drought by landing the 2014 FA Cup. A 2-1 defeat at home to Watford on Sunday ended Arsenal’s hopes of a third straight trophy in a competition that has offered Wenger much-needed solace in the past two seasons. And that presents a particular threat given that Arsenal have slipped to eight points adrift of the Premier League summit in a season that unquestionably presented their best opportunity to end their long wait for a title.
The situation is not a new one for Wenger, however. It was three years ago that Arsenal traveled to Bayern Munich needing to overturn a two-goal deficit on the back of a defeat to Tottenham that left them seven points adrift of their rivals in the battle for a Champions League place. They would claim an impressive victory in Munich, which provided the springboard for them claiming 26 of the final 30 points available in the league to seal a top-four berth.
The victory they secured in Munich, though, wasn’t enough to send them through to the quarterfinals. Indeed in the past three seasons Arsenal have lost the opening leg at home in the Champions League last 16 before producing a much better performance in the return leg, but still ultimately bowing out. Such is the current malaise around Arsenal, though, that Wenger may even accept an incredible sixth successive Round-of-16 exit, if it comes with an encouraging showing at the Camp Nou to lift the team to a late-season Premier League surge.
Barcelona, of course, will have no such considerations. While Arsenal were toiling in an FA Cup defeat at the weekend, Barcelona were beating Getafe 6-0 to equal a club record of 12 consecutive La Liga victories. Eight points clear at the top of the table and into the final of the Copa del Rey, a second straight treble is remarkably well within their sights.
On Saturday, head coach Luis Enrique could even afford to rest Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Dani Alves and still emerge emphatic victors. With the victory, Barcelona took their dominant home record in all competitions to 22 wins and one draw from their 23 matches this season. And there is an even more ominous statistic for Arsenal: Not since the Champions League semifinals three years ago have Barcelona lost at home by more than a single goal.
Prediction: It is very possible that with the odds against them and the pressure off that, as so often in the past, Arsenal come up with a highly creditable performance on Wednesday. But no matter how well Arsenal play, Barcelona, even in second gear, will have enough to ensure comfortable progress to the quarterfinals.
Predicted score: Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal (4-1 agg.)