Arsenal host Barcelona in one of the most anticipated Champions League Round of 16 ties this season, with Gunners manager Arsène Wenger looking to exorcise his demons against the Catalans and reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009-2010.
Having squeezed through to the Champions League knock-out round, Arsenal now face the daunting task of toppling Luis Enrique’s Barcelona in order to reach their first quarter-final in the competition for six years. Wenger’s men have been thwarted at the Round of 16 stage in each of their last five seasons, and it will take two special performances to buck that trend this term.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are the holders of the Champions League, and have been the best team in the competition for the past decade. Exactly ten seasons ago, it was Arsenal that Frank Riijkard’s Barça side defeated in the final at the Stade de France. Since that remarkable game in Paris, the Catalans have managed to get the better of the Gunners a further two times in the knock-out stages of the competition.
This season, Arsène Wenger arguably has the best squad he has ever had to play against Barcelona, and the Frenchman will look to exorcise his demons against the Liga giants by pulling off what would be a huge upset.
Arsène Wenger v Luis Enrique
Barcelona boss Luis Enrique has never competed against Wenger as a manager before, but did face the Frenchman’s Arsenal side as a player in 1999 in the first round of the competition. Interestingly, Enrique was on the scoresheet both in the 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp, as well as the Catalans’ 4-2 win at Highbury later that year.
Wenger’s record against Barça does not make for happy reading for those of the Arsenal parish, with the 66-year-old registering just one win in seven games against the Blaugrana. Barcelona also played spoilsport on the night that could well have been Wenger’s moment of crowning glory as Arsenal manager — the Champions League final in 2006.
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Wenger will look to expose Barcelona defence through fast attacking transitions
By the time the match clock read 20 minutes, Arsenal had already wrapped up all three points against Manchester United in October last year. One of the more salient takeaways from the Gunners’ exhilarating performance was the pace at which they were able to move the ball up the pitch — particularly for the second goal.
Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United had 62% possession on the day, but failed to find the back of the net thanks to a stubborn Arsenal back five. The Gunners’ ability to cede possession of the ball for large parts of the game and adopt a more direct approach has been refreshing to watch, and Arsène Wenger deserves credit for overseeing this transition in philosophy.
In fact, in two other notable home wins against big teams in Manchester City and Bayern Munich, the Gunners had 37% and 27% ball possession respectively. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Arsenal are now a side capable of adapting to the strengths of their opposition, and that is precisely what Wenger will look to do against Barcelona on Tuesday.
Rather than trying to outplay the Spanish giants, the Frenchman will look to hit Barcelona on the break and expose their defence through rapid, direct transitional play. Wenger will also have observed that one of the Catalans’ weaknesses is their defending against pacey forwards, while the intensity of a high press from the opposition has also led to mistakes being made by Enrique’s back four.
Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 is likely to feature the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey, all of whom are extremely mobile players capable of forcing mistakes from the opposition through the systematic application of pressure high up the pitch. The quartet also have the pace to capitalise on the break, and playmaker Mesut Özil is likely to have plenty of targets to aim at when he gets on the ball.
Enrique could adopt more direct approach to bypass Arsenal midfield
Barcelona have been most vulnerable this season when they have been pressed high up the pitch. The opponents who have chosen to adopt this high-risk, high-reward method have tried to cut off supply to the Lionel Messi-Luis Suárez-Neymar trio at the source, to varying degrees of success. Celta de Vigo and Sevilla earned all three points, while the likes of Malaga and Levante suffered unfortunate defeats.
The Catalans’ build-up play from the back is conspicuously worse in the absence of Sergio Busquets, who remains an absolutely pivotal figure in the team. With Arsenal likely to attempt pressing him in advanced areas at some point during the game, Luis Enrique might ask his team to adopt a more direct approach.
A technically proficient Barcelona back four may be asked to play long balls, which would not only have the effect of bypassing Arsenal’s high press, but could lead to Messi, Neymar or Suárez being isolated against the Gunners’ defence.
The individual quality in that front three is such that Wenger’s men will simply put numbers behind the ball to keep them out. One of the most effective ways of countering that would be to avoid passing the ball through midfield and playing a more direct game than usual, thereby taking time away from Arsenal and preventing them from organising their defence.
Luis Suárez v Laurent Koscielny
The Uruguayan has been in incredible form this season, leading Europe’s goalscoring charts with an astonishing 40 goals in all competitions already. Suárez’s finishing is top class, but by far his most dangerous attribute is his predatory movement in the penalty area.
Laurent Koscielny is one of the better readers of the game among Europe’s top centre-backs, and the France international will have to be at his best to anticipate and intercept attempted passes to Suárez from the likes of Iniesta, Messi and Neymar.
Francis Coquelin v Andrés Iniesta
Although he may not be at the peak of his powers, the eternal genius of Andrés Iniesta means that the man given the appropriate moniker of ‘Don’ will be a big threat to Arsenal’s chances on Tuesday. The Spaniard is a master at finding spaces in the final third, but is unrivalled when it comes to shifting the ball out of his feet quickly, dribbling through tight spaces, and then finding an inch-perfect pass to a team-mate.
Defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin is crucial for Wenger’s side, and the Frenchman will be tasked with reducing Iniesta’s influence in the game. The 24-year-old will have to be particularly wary of the Barcelona playmaker’s movement in the final third, and will have to have an impeccable game in terms of his defensive positioning.
Alexis Sánchez v Dani Alves
Barcelona’s Brazilian right-back has not been in great form recently, with Luis Enrique even substituting him early against Levante and Celta de Vigo due to his poor displays. Alves was often found out of position, and particularly against Levante, was beaten on more than one occasion in one-on-one situations.
Arsenal superstar Alexis Sánchez will relish this intense physical battle, and apart from trying to take on Dani Alves directly, the Chilean will look to exploit the space that is usually left behind by the former Sevilla defender if the Gunners get a chance to launch a fast counter-attack.
Blast from the past
Arsenal travelled to the Nou Camp in September 1999 with a side featuring the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Patrick Vieiria and Dennis Bergkamp. However, it was Nwankwo Kanu who silenced the 100,000-capacity stadium with a late equaliser.
A Barcelona team featuring Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Frank de Boer, Rivaldo and Luís Figo took the lead with an extremely scrappy goal courtesy of the current Catalan boss. However, despite having the numerical advantage following the dismissal of Gilles Grimandi, some shocking defending allowed Kanu to smash home the leveller from a rebound.
Here are the highlights from the first ever UEFA Champions League meeting between the two sides: