By Richard Clarke
The day before the draw for the Champions League Knockout Round back in December, Arsène Wenger left his usual press conference with a knowing smirk on his face.
The Arsenal manager said he knew, just knew, the team his side would face – but would not reveal their identity. The prevailing presumption was Barcelona and, less than 24 hours later, the Spanish champions were duly delivered.
That self-same smirk returned at the end of his media work on the eve of the first leg at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday. Wenger was wished good luck as he rose from his chair.
“Thanks,” he smiled. “We’ll need it.”
The Frenchman is not given to playing a subservient role in the build-up to a major match. But this time he has lavished fulsome, unfettered praise on his opponents. The best in Europe, the best in the world and possibly the best ever – all have been offered by Wenger.
Pep Guardiola has ventured down the same road when he has spoken to the media. The Barca manager admits he did not want Arsenal in the draw. They can ‘leave you chasing shadows’. They ‘worry’ him.
Despite winning a stunning Quarter-Final tie 6-3 on aggregate last season, it is understandable.
Barca were bewilderingly good for the first 30 minutes at Emirates Stadium in February 2010 but only grabbed their two goals when the storm was calming at the start of the second half. By that time, Arsenal had lost Andrey Arshavin and William Gallas to injury. The introduction of Theo Walcott turned the tide and, by the end, the visitors were clinging on to a 2-2 draw.
Arsenal took the lead in the return game however Lionel Messi then ran in four goals as Barca cantered home. It was a humbling, chastening experience.
“Last year was not the real Arsenal in the first game,” said Wenger. “We lost Arshavin after 30 minutes and Gallas at half-time, so we had already made two changes. We also lost Fabregas in the last minute so went into the second game with three key players not fit.”
The manager forgot to mention Robin van Persie and Alex Song were also missing at the Nou Camp.
But Wenger admits there are no such excuses this season. Yes, they will be without Bacary Sagna (suspended), Abou Diaby (calf) and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) but Samir Nasri (hamstring) and Tomas Rosicky (groin) are back. For mid-February that is a relatively fit squad.
Meanwhile, on the tactical side, the Arsenal manager will stick to his principles – press and pass, press and pass. Of course, Barcelona are kindred spirits and utterly out-Arsenaled them last term but the Frenchman argues that if his team are to overcome Guardiola’s team they must beat them at their own game.
Inter did manage to knockout Barca in the following round last season by ‘parking the bus’ but Wenger argues his finely-honed side can not shift gear that easily.
“Of course we want to nullify Barcelona’s strengths because it will be different for us on Wednesday,” said the 61-year-old. “If you want us to play long balls and long throw-ins it would be worse than playing our own game. For example, if you ask Wilshere to head the ball it will be a problem for him.
“Usually we have 60 per cent of the ball and our opponents have 40 per cent, or maybe 70 per cent and 30 per cent. This time it might be a little bit the other way. So when we defend we have to defend with calmness and determination. But when we have the ball we have to play our own game.
“We will have to work very hard without the ball too. The focus on defending well will be vital, as we know that when we have the ball we can cause them problems. They will give us problems as well, so it’s just important we do our defensive job very well.
“I would not deny this Barcelona are one of the best teams ever, but my team wants to show we can beat them. I believe personally that we can do it.
“Barcelona are certainly the team to beat if you want to be the best and that’s our target. They’re the best club team I’ve ever faced.”
Captain Carles Puyol is missing with a knee injury. This means Eric Abidal is likely to move to centre back and Maxwell will come in at left back. It is positive news for Arsenal. The Brazilian was terrorised by Theo Walcott in the final 30 minutes at Emirates Stadium last season – arguably the only real dominance the London side enjoyed throughout the tie.
And, whisper it quietly, but Wenger thinks his winger is better 12 months on.
“Theo has improved tremendously as a football player this year,” said the Frenchman. “He is different in his links with the other players. His movement is sharper and his finishing is sharper. He looks like he’s less nervous and much more relaxed.
“For me he’s made a big leap forward in the last six months and improved tremendously. He’s now a regular player in our team. Nobody wonders if he will play on Wednesday or not. You know that I will start him. That has played a big part in his mind as well. He was at the World Cup at the age of 16 so everyone forgets he is only 21. At that age other players are just starting their careers.”
Wenger believes that Barca’s first-half performance at Emirates Stadium was the best he has ever witnessed – and that the Catalans have only got better since then!
However he also argues his side have developed massively aswell.
Therefore the relative growth rates may be the determining factors in this tie.
But then, is this actually the same Arsenal side? The team that started in the 2-2 draw was Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Fabregas, Nasri, Diaby, Arshavin and Bendtner. Only six of those can start on Wednesday and the actual figure may be more like four.
Meanwhile the bench at the Nou Camp included Eastmond, Merida, Traore, Eduardo and a semi-fit Sol Campbell. While the out-of-favour Mikael Silvestre was left to face Messi. The little maestro had been subdued at Emirates but exploded at the Nou Camp and, in all honesty, toyed with an injury-ravaged Arsenal in the second half.
It was painful, faintly crushing and yet, at the same time, you appreciated it. Football may be innately tribal but sometimes you just have to applaud. Arsenal did not lose that night, they were beaten.
Form, fitness and fortune simply did not favour Wenger’s men throughout a wonderful 180 minutes last season. Undoubtedly they are stronger and wiser this term but have they bridged that gaping divide?
Whatever the answer, it will be wonderful finding out.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source