EUFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Arsenal v Barcelona
Emirates Stadium, 7.45pm
At the risk of sounding unduly pessimistic, it was not entirely easy to follow Arsène Wenger’s logic when he started talking us through the reasons why Arsenal could emerge unscathed from two legs against a Barcelona side with haughty credentials to be recognised as the most exquisitely assembled team who ever existed.
Arsenal’s manager has to strike a positive note but if his team are to stand any chance against Barcelona they will need to find a level of concentration, defensive structure and tactical expertise that has been evident only sporadically during their five-year run of leaving the Champions League at the first knockout stage.
Their opponents, Wenger acknowledged, will be “super favourites”. Arsenal will have to reach the point of maximum expression not just once, but twice, and even then it might still not be enough judging by Wenger’s response when he was asked whether Barcelona had any discernible weaknesses. “Of course,” he replied. “No team is perfect.” And then he paused. “Though they are not far from it, I must say.”
It has certainly been difficult to find too many imperfections during Barcelona’s 32-match unbeaten streak, a club record that has seen them accumulate 104 goals and concede only 19, and when it comes to Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez the numbers are so mind-boggling it is tempting to think that getting through to the quarter-finals would qualify as one of the finest achievements in Arsenal’s modern era.
Between them, those three have managed 213 goals since Suárez signed for Barcelona in the summer of 2014 – 85 for Messi, 66 for Suárez and 62 for Neymar – and 91 this season. To put that into perspective, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck have managed 58 over the same 20-month period – outscored almost four to one.
Even when Wenger thought back to Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona in 2011, when the sides met at the same stage of the competition, his memory was clouded by the manner in which Pep Guardiola’s team turned the game upside down with a 3-1 win in the return leg . “It’s quite funny because the one year we beat them they played us off the park,” Wenger said.
So where are the weaknesses? “That’s what we have to show,” he said. “Look, you don’t win the Champions League by accident. You don’t lead La Liga by nine points when Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are both doing well . . . that’s not a coincidence.
“They (Barcelona) are top, top quality. They are the best team in the world, and nobody questions that. But we played Hull on Saturday and it was 0-0. We went to Sheffield Wednesday and lost 3-0. So why can’t it be possible the other way around?”
The difference is that on both those occasions, in the FA Cup and League Cup, Arsenal handicapped themselves by playing weakened sides and could be accused of not being fully focused, in a way that is rarely said of Barça in big matches.
More than anything, Wenger’s instructions will concern not being caught up in the emotion of the tie. He will emphasise there are two legs, reiterating the importance of a clean sheet and avoiding what he described as “a knife in your heart” – namely, an away goal. It is not Wenger’s way to set up ultra-defensively but there is a necessity to be realistic about the disparity between the teams and plan accordingly.
“We need a top-level team performance where everybody is spot on with their discipline, sharp physically and ready to work for the team,” Wenger said.
“Being resilient, having great solidarity and showing intelligence as well. Let’s not forget we have a great defensive record. Maybe we were too keen [in previous two-legged Champions League exits] to make the difference in the first game. We have to find the right balance between being audacious, which is what you need to be against Barcelona, but also being a strong defensive unit.”
Wenger’s assertion that this was an easier game to manage than the one against Hull might sound preposterous but, in terms of motivation and focus, he makes a valid point.
The secret, perhaps, is making sure his players are not too wound up and there was a note of caution when the talk switched to Alexis Sánchez facing his former club.
“He will be fired up, but that doesn’t mean he will be in the right zone,” Wenger said. “The performance zone is where you are focused and relaxed. And that is what is difficult in sport. Sometimes when you are too focused you are not relaxed. It’s a zone where everything looks easy, and sometimes when you play against your former club you are not necessarily in that zone”.
Wenger sounded confident. The trouble is lots of managers comes across that way before these fixtures and invariably when the opposition is Barcelona it ends with the same result.
The mind goes back to last season and the way Manuel Pellegrini and his Manchester City players bravely talked about fancying their chances. Then the whistle blew and Messi, Neymar et al lined up to take turns nutmegging James Milner and Fernandinho.
For Arsenal, the reality is they, too, might simply be outplayed. “It can happen,” Wenger admitted. Guardian Service