After Arsenal’s heroics in the Champions League in Greece against Olympiakos to qualify for the last 16 of the competition, their next fate was on hold as they waited to see who they would face in the next round.
Everyone at the club would have been wishing for an “easier” opponent. The likes of Wolfsburg, Zenit and Atletico were some of the favourable teams Arsenal would have liked to face. After the struggle in the groups, it would have been fair for the Gunners that they draw a team which would have gave them a “sure” chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2010.
This was not the case. In typical fashion, fate was against Arsenal and it was reigning champions Barcelona that they would be facing.
Historically, Arsenal do not have the best record against Barcelona. In 2011 and 2012, they were knocked out of the competition by the Spanish giants and were defeated in the 2006 Champions League final after losing 2-1 in Paris. Apologies to Arsenal fans, even I am haunted in my dreams by that night.
The question is – realistically can Arsenal defeat Barcelona? This is a very different Arsenal team that last faced Barcelona and this is a very different Barcelona team that last faced Arsenal.
The Gunners have showed strength when against Europe’s giants this season. Match Day 3 of the Champions League groups saw them defeat Bayern Munich 2-0 at the Emirates, a stadium where Barcelona have never won at. On the contrast, Arsenal crumbled to a 5-1 defeat on the return leg. Not a good omen for Arsenal when they have never won at the Nou Camp.
Since last facing Barcelona in 2012, Arsene Wenger has remoulded his Arsenal side. The likes of Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sánchez, Petr Čech and Mesut Özil have all joined the North London club, whereas for Barcelona they have seen Neymar, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo and former Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen join. Two different teams, the start of a new era between the two clubs.
In the battle of paper, it’s Luis Enrique’s men who have the edge in the form of a trio that strike fear into the hearts of any football club around the world. Neymar, Suarez and Lionel Messi have formed a formidable partnership which has seen Barcelona reclaim their status as the best club in the world.
In Arsenal’s hands is a former Barcelona – Alexis Sánchez. Brought last season from the Catalan club for £32million, Alexis (as he prefers to be known) has been a spearhead in the Gunner’s attack and his determination has provided inspiration for when his side have looked depleted.
From strength to strength, Arsenal also have the majestic Mesut Özil who this season is proving why Arsene Wenger broke Arsenal’s transfer record when he was signed for £42.5million in 2013. With 13 assists in 15 Premier League games this term, he’s an unstoppable force and his eye for a pass has seen him take down the likes of Bayern and Manchester United, as well as breaking the Premier League record for the most consecutive games providing an assist in. Arguably unsurprising by the man deemed the ‘King of assists’.
A team can’t be complete without a goalkeeper. A position Arsenal have been without true world class ability ever since Jens Lehmann departed the club. The Gooner faithful have had to endure frustration in goalkeepers like Manuel Almunia and Wojciech Szczesny, mini heart-attacks knowing once that ball is past the defensive line you’re a goner.
That’s no longer the case. A unpredictable transfer saw Chelsea legend Petr Cech move across London in the summer and he has been a god send for Arsenal, showing how a world class goalkeeper can make the difference.
Since last playing Barcelona, key men have also emerged. Laurent Koscielny is gaining worldwide recognition as one of the best defenders in the game, whilst Aaron Ramsey has been a leading force for many seasons now. The emergence of Barcelona youth prodigy Hector Bellerín has added stability to the Arsenal defence, a rarity coming from such a young defender and the rise of Francis Coquelin not only makes a great story but has seen stability added to the midfield reminiscent of the legendary Patrick Vieira.
All in all, a lot has changed since the two teams last played each-other. Barcelona continued their dominance in winning trophies whilst Arsenal are now winning trophies again.
Realistically, the ball is in Barcelona’s park. They have the stronger squad, the better players and a style of play which, despite Arsenal’s very good mimic, is miles ahead of the Gunners. That’s not to say Arsenal don’t have a chance. They have defeated Bayern Munich already this season and tore Manchester United to pieces within 20 minutes so a result at the Emirates is a possibility. It’s just that away leg which will be the struggle.
Despite having the best away form in the premier league in 2015, when it comes to playing the ‘big boys’ Arsenal have struggled. This is an expected commodity attached to Arsenal but it will be that home leg that will decide it for them.
Beat Barcelona at home and they know exactly what they need to do. Lose or draw and the dream becomes an improbable reality. But this is what the Champions League is all about. You want to play the best teams around the world and no-matter what’s happens between the two games, we can expect two sensational games.