Tuesday evening will have football-lovers glued to one of the most anticipated clashes of the season as Barcelona host Arsenal in the second-leg of the UEFA Champions League last-16 round.
What makes the tie such a hotly anticipated spectacle is largely, as was mentioned in preview of the first-leg, the team's purist attitude towards playing the game. They're probably two of best passing sides in World football, though Barcelona are miles ahead having found the right mixture between attractiveness and effectiveness which has seen them pass through the strongest opposition to win trophies aplenty.
Despite the superiority of the Catalans, the first-leg saw something of an upset when Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners, with a strong performance in the after the change of ends. Second half goals from Van Persie and Arshavin cancelled out David Villa's first half opener, and Arsenal were worthy winners. However, all hasn't been well for the Gunners since then.
The confidence the Gunners would have gained from that result drained away quickly when on the subsequent Sunday, in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, a horrendous defensive error cost them their first trophy in six years. In the two games since then, Arsenal were inconsistent. They thrashed Leyton Orient 5-0 in the fifth round replay to set up a quarter-final date with Manchester United, but then were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Sunderland in the league. Arsenal were left to rue the lost points after league leaders Manchester United were thumped 3-1 at Liverpool the following day.
In last year's quarter-final draw between the two sides at the Nou Camp, Barcelona shredded the gunners 4-1 with Lionel Messi scoring all Barca goals. If that result is anything to go by, Arsenal should be petrified. Such was the ease in which the Catalans, and especially Messi, broke through the visitors rearguard.
Much has changed since then though, and Arsenal are a much more matured and solid unit. Their defence has had a complete makeover while their midfield has the freshness of the young Jack Wilshere. Van Persie has been in scintillating form of late and with Cesc Fabregas returning from injury in time to face the club that nurtured him in his early teens, the Gunners will feel confident.
Though Van Persie and Fabregas are not fully fit, they're expected to play a part against Barca. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, shed light on Fabregas' fitness condition, though he was coy on Van Persie's.
Wenger said, He (Van Persie) has made quick progress. It is no mind game - I am not good at those. Whether he has been included in the squad has not yet been decided. He has made quick progression in the last three days.
(On Monday morning) he was unlikely to travel, but he wanted to go, so he had a test and it was quite positive. We will not take a gamble in a game of such importance. It will be fit or not fit. Personally I would like him to play if possible, but I will only play him if he is 100% fit.
One thing is for certain. Arsenal will need all their best players for this game. The Catalans come to this game on the back of a narrow 1-0 win over Real Zaragoza, despite resting some of their stars. The Catalans will be looking for revenge and with Wenger promising to attack, Barca will try and get behind the Arsenal defence.
They have their fair share of injury problems though. Captain Carles Puyol, who missed the first leg, failed to recover from a knee problem, while his central defensive partner Gerard Pique will watch from the sidelines as he is suspended. Importantly, Barca manager Pep Guardiola has recovered sufficiently from a slipped disc and will take his place in the dug-out, though he missed a Barca training session on Sunday.
In the pre-match press conference, Guardiola dispensed talk of a fragile Arsenal saying the Gunners could well be on their way to a period of sustained success.
He said, I keep hearing about the fragility in the minds of the Arsenal players, but I do not agree. They are competing with Manchester United for the Premier League, reached the final of the Carling Cup and a few seasons ago were in the final of the Champions League.
Arsenal are always in the top, when you compete every season at the top, it is because they are quality. Sometimes they sell players, but Arsenal always keep the same level. Many teams arrive at the top for one year, but then are finished. Arsenal are there every season.
For many years they have kept up there, and that is the real merit. Yes, they lack something, but they are a young team. When they win the first time, they will change the mentality, they will realise they are good.
The first-leg of the tie panned out to be a feast for the neutrals. With much more at stake in the second-leg, early signs point to another classic. It isn't everyday that two of the most attractive advocates of the game meet each other and everything about this game points towards an epic encounter!
Team News -
Arsenal will leave it late to decide whether Robin Van Persie should play. However, Cesc Fabregas has recovered sufficiently to play a part. Alex Song, Theo Walcott and Thomas Vermaelen are all out injured.
Barcelona will be without their skipper Carles Puyol, who failed to recover from a back problem, and Gerard Pique, who is suspended. David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Eric Abidal were all rested during the weekend and should start the game.
Arsenal have every reason to be optimistic. But the memories of Lionel Messi's performance in the last encounter between the two sides at Nou Camp will depress any Gunner fan. They need just a draw to go through, but Barcelona can be expected to go on the attack and win 3-1.