Who will win Arsenal v Barcelona - Shock result?
Champions League shock result on the cards?
Here we go once again looking forward to the two maestros of World football pitted against each other in the first knock out stages of the Champions League. In one corner we have the spectacularly entertaining Spanish matadors who continue to put every challenger to the sword. In the opposite corner we have the suave multinational troop led by a sophisticated Gallic conductor. In the middle the battle is set for control of a ball and progession to the next stage of the World's premier football competition.
I look back at the memorable encounter which took place in the 2006 final where the drama unfolded from the off with Thierry Henry missing two very presentable chances to give Arsenal the upper hand. The atmosphere reached fever-pitch with the dismissal of Jens Lehman on only the 18th minute. The suspense became unbearable as a gallant 10 man Arsenal took the game to Barcelona and went into the lead through man mountain Sol Campbell. As the minutes ticked away Arsenal seemed to be etching their way to a remarkable victory before succumbing to an Eto'o goal in the 76th minute before finally having their hearts broken 6 minutes later when a strike from the tightest of angles by Belletti secured victory for the Catalan Giants. Without doubt, Barcelona have since gone on to become the greatest football team in the World. With their current side bulging with the talents of seven Spanish World Cup winners and the pocket-sized Argentinian dynamo Lionel Messi, arguably the World's best player, they are an intimidating force to say the least. Currently leading the charge for the La Liga, they appear more solid and compact than last year's team and their annihilation of Real Madrid earlier in the season was enough to send shivers down your spine.
Unfortunately, last year's meeting between these two sides saw a lame and timid bull being bedazzled by a Spanish matador. The first 20 minutes of the first leg saw Barcelona produce a footballing performance like nothing I can ever recall. Like rabbits caught in car headlights, Arsenal's players were forced to helplessly join their 60,000 spectators as the the ball fizzed around them at such speed and precision that it made their opponents appear almost super human. Incredibly, Barcelona failed to score in the first half yet almost comically netted the most simple of goals within 25 seconds of the restart. When a further all too easy lob over the top resulted in a second goal for the Catalan's, Arsenal's players seemed like a spent force. Then Wenger threw on Theo Walcott and his searing pace suddenly had Barcelona on the back foot for the first time. Amazingly, he pulled a goal back before captain fantastic Cesc Fabregas crashed home an equalising penalty. In fact the game almost ended with what most, even Gunners fans, would have deemed one of the greatest football injustices - an Arsenal victory. Despite the momentary hope sparked by Bendtner's early goal in the return leg, a Lionel Messi master class ensured Barcelona strolled to a 4-1 victory.
With a team full of technical brilliance, World Cup, Champions League and domestic league winners, it is hard to imagine the upcoming first knockout stage tie with Arsenal going any other way than a Barcelona victory. However, while Barcelona's credentials need no further elaboration some context is certainly required in Arsenal’s case.
While last year's encounter was a major disappointment In terms of two exponents of the beautiful game failing to produce the flowing end-to-end dual that many had hoped, this year's contest has the potential to be a genuine hard-fought battle. Leading up to last year's games, Barcelona were on the crest of a wave while Arsenal's season had already started to flat-line having slumped in the league and fallen out of all other competitions. They were also struggling with players fitness and by the time of the second leg they were down to the bare bones of their squad. With Van Persie not available in either leg, there were the notable absences of Fabregas, Song and Arshavin followed by the loss of Gallas during the first half which left the ageing, slow Silvestre to try and assist Vermalen in defence. Additionally, several players played with niggling injuries.
This time around, Arsene Wenger has a fit and healthy squad available playing somewhere near to the top of their game and with great confidence. Already in the Carling cup final, they remain hot on Man United's heals and still in the FA cup. Players like Song, Walcott and Nasri are different animals this time around having matured considerably since last season while Fabregas and Van Persie look particularly sharp at present. Arsharvin has started to rediscover his game over the last couple of matches and both fullbacks have been outstanding this term. The return of the tall speedy Djourou has been a real boost for Arsenal and with the equally nimble and brave Koscielny by his side, I predict Barcelona’s front line will find Arsenal’s defence a little more challenging than the ageing stalwarts they faced last time around. The fact that Chamakh, Rosicky, Diaby, Gibbs, Bendtner, Eboue, Squillaci and Denilson can be risen from the bench highlights the greater depth now in Arsenal's squad. However, the biggest plus this season has been the emergence of the outstanding young prodigy Jack Wishere who has come from nowhere to establish himself in both the first team and the England squad. Intelligent, skilful and cunning he is also a tenacious and brave bull terrier-like tackler who certainly adds an extra security to the midfield area.
Despite Arsenal's fabled lack of trophies over the last half decade, continual top four finishes mean that they remain amongst the most experienced Champions League campaigners. Arguably, their style of play and types of players are better attuned to the non-Premiership format and supposed defensive weakness seem something of a myth when you consider that only the two Manchester teams and Chelsea have conceded fewer goals. In fact, if you omitted the freak 4-4 draw with Newcastle, then only Chelsea would have conceded fewer goals (22 v 23). Again only Man United have scored more goals than Arsenal (57 v 56).
Certainly I do not wish to dismiss the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Messi who would cause any opponent to have a sleepless night before a game. They are the undoubted class acts amongst an already highly talented group of players. But I do think those expecting another Barcelona master class like that demonstrated in the last meeting might be surprised at how close an encounter this tie will be and might even be shocked to see Arsenal come out the other side victorious.