Arsene Wenger’s embattled Arsenal outfit face an uphill task as they head to the Camp Nou to lock horns with Luis Enrique’s all-conquering Barcelona side on Wednesday night.
A Lionel Messi masterclass condemned Arsenal to a 2-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie three weeks ago. The Gunners now face the near-impossible task of defeating the reigning European champions on their own turf by a margin of at least two goals. Ominously, Saturday’s 6-0 hammering of Getafe was Barcelona’s 37th consecutive match without defeat this season.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have been on a wretched run lately, having won just 4 out of their last 14 fixtures in all competitions. Sunday’s 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Watford in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup would have done little to soothe the appetite of success-hungry Arsenal fans. The North London outfit’s impending European Cup exit at the hands of the Blaugrana on Wednesday night will further embolden the rejuvenated “Wenger Out” brigade.
Luis Enrique vs Arsene Wenger
Arsenal’s 2-0 home defeat to Barcelona in the Round of 16 first leg was the only managerial head-to-head clash between Luis Enrique and Arsene Wenger. As a player, however, Enrique scored twice against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side in the 1999-00 edition of the UEFA Champions League.
Barcelona and Arsenal have faced each other 8 times in Europe since Wenger took over the reigns at the London club in 1996. Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Barcelona in February 2011 at the Emirates is the only time the Gunners have managed to trump the Catalans.
Victory the only thing on Enrique’s mind
Luis Enrique, who took over from Tata Martino in 2014, successfully guided the Catalans to a historic treble last season and is currently on track to repeat that feat this season as well. Under Enrique, the Catalans have not lost at home since February 2014, and are unbeaten in their last 37 matches in all competitions this season. With his team in such devastating form, the Barcelona manager is not expected to tinker with his team composition and formation against Arsenal on Wednesday.
Although a one-goal defeat to Arsenal on the night would be sufficient to send Barcelona through to the next round, anything other than an emphatic win over their English rivals would be unacceptable for the Asturian.
Barcelona’s attacking triumvirate of Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) will be looking to exploit Arsenal’s error-prone central defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel. The sheer brilliance of Lionel Messi, clever trickery of Neymar Jr. and the relentless industry of Luis Suarez will pose a major obstacle to Arsene Wenger’s hopes of keeping a clean sheet at the Camp Nou.
The absence of Gerard Pique through suspension is the only major headache that Enrique has with respect to his team selection against the Gunners. Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu is expected to get the nod ahead of former Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen on Wednesday night. Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Dani Alves and goalkeeper Marc Andre ter-Stegen will continue to be deployed in their usual positions.
Arsene Wenger hoping for a European miracle at the Camp Nou amidst injury crisis
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will lead his team to Barcelona’s iconic Camp Nou stadium knowing that anything other than a miracle will see his team crash out of Europe at the round of 16 stage for the sixth season in a row.
The last time a team came back from a 2-goal first-leg home defeat in Europe’s premier football competition was in 1969, when Ajax overcame Benfica to progress to the next round. Arsenal must replicate that feat on Wednesday night — albeit against the most formidable attacking outfit in all of Europe.
Wenger knows that keeping a clean sheet on the night is of paramount importance if Arsenal are to script an unlikely victory at the Camp Nou. That is easier said than done, however, keeping in mind Arsenal’s fledgling centre-back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel.
Further compounding Arsene Wenger’s defensive headache is the absence of Petr Cech in goal against Barcelona in the 2nd leg. Cech, who injured his hamstring during Arsenal’s 2-1 home defeat to Swansea 10 days ago, will be out of action for 3 more weeks. Colombian international David Ospina will deputize in goal for the Gunners on Wednesday.
Wenger will also be without the services of midfielder Aaron Ramsey on the night, after the Welshman suffered a thigh muscle injury against Hull City last week. With Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere also out with injuries, the Frenchman’s options in central midfield are severely depleted.
Mesut Ozil, who has had a stellar campaign for the Gunners this season, will be tasked with unlocking the Barcelona defence. Former Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez has failed to hit the ground running for Arsenal since returning from injury in January. He will need to put in a strong shift against his former side if the Gunners are to cause an almighty upset in Catalonia.
Up front, Wenger has a myriad of misfiring strikers at his disposal. Both Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have struggled to find the back of the net against quality oppositions in recent weeks. Former Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck, who has scored thrice since returning from a year-long injury, is expected to get the nod ahead of the misfiring duo.
Lionel Messi vs Francis Coquelin
Francis Coquelin invoked the ire of the Gunners faithful after getting sent off against bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby last week. The French midfielder will have to be at his destructive best when he locks horns with arguably the greatest footballer to ever grace the sport — Lionel Messi.
The mercurial Argentine forward was at his imperious best as his majestic brace condemned Arsenal to a 2-0 defeat at the Emirates 3 weeks ago. Another scintillating display from the 5-time Ballon d’Or winner will sound the death knell for Arsenal’s European hopes this season.
Danny Welbeck vs Javier Mascherano
With Giroud and Walcott both misfiring, Wenger is likely to deploy Danny Welbeck up front at the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Welbeck, whose dramatic 94th-minute winner against English league leaders Leicester City kept Arsenal’s title hopes alive, has scored thrice since his return from a serious injury.
He will be up against Barcelona’s makeshift centre-back Javier Mascherano, who has made the position his own in recent years. In the absence of his partner Gerard Pique, the Argentine will be tasked with keeping Welbeck and Arsenal at bay.
Sergio Busquets vs Mesut Ozil
Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets and Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil are likely to be engaged in an intriguing tactical battle in the middle of the park in the 2nd leg. Busquets, who is perhaps the greatest central defensive midfielder of his generation, will be tasked with tackling the German pass master, who has already provided 18 assists so far this season. Ozil will need to be at his imperious best if Arsenal are to register an unlikely win over the reigning European champions on their own turf.
Blast from the past
Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal (2010)
Arsenal came from 2 goals down to draw 2-2 with the mighty Catalans in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals in 2010 at the Emirates. In the reverse leg at the Camp Nou, Nicolas Bendtner gave the Gunners an unlikely lead in the 18th minute. Then, Lionel Messi took over.
In one of the most memorable performances ever witnessed on the European stage, Messi scored 4 goals to knock the stuffing out of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side, and sent them crashing out of the Champions League. Barcelona would eventually go on to lose to Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter Milan in the-semi finals of the competition.