The first knockout round of the Champions League begins this week and without much argument, the biggest tie of the round is Arsenal vs Barcelona. The two sides met last season at the quarter final stage of the competition, with Barcelona eventually winning comfortably 6-3 on aggregate.
Once again, the first leg is at the Emirates Stadium and Arsenal fans will be hoping that their side start off better than they did last year. Barcelona played some fantastic football in the first fifteen minutes of the game and very few would argue that those wearing Arsenal shirts were fortunate not to concede a few goals early on.
Barcelona are currently the favourites to win the Champions League this year and they have been on excellent form all season. The majority of people have written off Arsenal’s chances of beating Barcelona over two legs, but do Arsenal have a realistic chance of pulling off an upset?
Usually at this point of the season, Arsenal have several key players out injured which upsets the balance of the side and causes huge problems when the team faces a great side like Barcelona. This time around, however, the Gunners only have Thomas Vermaelen and Lukasz Fabianski out as long-term injuries. Samir Nasri is doubtful, but he should certainly be back in time for the second leg.
For the majority of the season, Arsenal have only been playing with one man up front. They started the season by using Marouane Chamakh in this role because Robin van Persie was out injured, but now that the Dutch striker is back and in form, he will certainly start the game.
It would be anticipated that Arsenal will line up with five in midfield, with Alex Song and Jack Wilshere both playing in a deeper role, but supporting Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park when they can. Theo Walcott has been playing well in recent weeks and should start out in the right, with Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky most likely battling it out for the wide left position.
Arsenal’s defence should lineup with Gael Clichy at left back, Bacary Sagna at right back and Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou as the centre halves. In goal, Arsenal may decide to use Manuel Almunia due to his experience rather than Wojciech Szczesny, who has been playing for the club regularly in the league.
With this type of set up, Arsenal will need to keep the ball for extended periods of time, which is not an easy task against Barcelona. As Barcelona proved against Real Madrid in December, they are not just a team who work hard when they have the ball, they can also press extremely well and cause the opposing team to make several mistakes.
Arsenal will have to be at the top of their game and take any chance that is give to them. They should be looking to use Walcott’s pace against either Abidal or Maxwell down the right hand side and produce good deliveries to van Persie, who has been on good goal scoring form for the past couple of months. The absence of Carlos Puyol for Barcelona will be a major positive for the Gunners. Arsenal’s defence would be the main worry, especially in the central areas. The team do not look as solid without Vermaelen and coming up against players like Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and David Villa may prove very difficult for them.
A lot of pressure is off Arsenal because they are definitely the underdogs going into this match, which should help to ease their nerves. If they are to win this tie, you would have to say that they need to win the match on Wednesday night because the game at the Nou Camp will be their toughest of the season so far. Arsenal were destroyed at the Nou Camp last season and many would argue that Barcelona are a better side this season. Arsenal, however, also seem to be on better form this season, so it should be a fantastic match.
Written by Eddie Smith, a sports writer who likes to talk about new football shirts.