By Rob Kelly
“You want not to be impressed by them, and just play without any handbrake. Defend well and find that mixture that we found against Bayern Munich at home. I think that should inspire us.” - Arsène Wenger
Champions League nights don’t come much bigger than hosting Barcelona, the holders and the clear favourites to retain the trophy, in the knockout stages.
The visitors’ stats make for daunting reading: of their 44 games this season, they have won 32, drawn nine and lost just three. They have scored 113 times, conceded 37 and are unbeaten in their last 32 matches.
They are also one of only two undefeated teams left in the Champions League, have won 15 of their 19 games in the competition since last term and have lifted the trophy four times in the past 10 seasons.
And that’s not to mention a front three that many consider to be the finest attacking trident of all time.
It is some task facing Arsenal and Arsène Wenger, but the manager insists this is what makes the Champions League such an enticing competition.
“We are very much look forward to a big game like this,” he told Arsenal Player. “We are excited about playing it, but on the other hand, you want to win it. That creates worry and you want to think about what is the best way to beat them. I think we have a chance to achieve that.
“Of course they are the best team in Europe at the moment, because they are the holders of the trophy, and they are top of their league by a big margin. That means the task is difficult but as well very exciting.
“I expect an open game, because they are a team who go forward and play with three strikers. We like to attack as well so it should be a very offensive, exciting game on both sides.”
Of course, we have been here before. Back at the same stage in 2011, the Gunners defied expectations to claim an unforgettable first leg win at the Emirates thanks to late goals from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Rosicky (thigh), Cazorla (knee), Gabriel (hamstring)
Barcelona: Turan (suspended), Rafinha (Knee)
It may have been five years ago, but Wenger hopes that result can have an effect on his current crop ahead of Tuesday night’s encounter.
“To know that we have done it before helps because it means what you have done, you can do again,” he said. “We should be inspired by that.
“On the day, we beat them in the final stages of the game. That’s why we have to prepare ourselves to be physically very strong, resolute and go through uncomfortable situations in the game with a resolute attitude.
“You want not to be impressed by them, and just play without any handbrake. Defend well and find that mixture that we found against Bayern Munich at home. I think that should inspire us.”
ONE TO WATCH
A testing night against the European champions requires Arsenal’s biggest players to step up - and they don’t come much bigger than Alexis.
The Chile international has been a revelation since his arrival from the Nou Camp in the summer of 2014 but, after recovering from a recent hamstring injury, is yet to scale the heights he has previously attained.
But Alexis is a player born for the big occasion, and he will not suffer for a lack of motivation against his former club – although Wenger says that the 27-year-old must make sure he strikes the right balance on Tuesday night.
“He will be fired up, but that doesn’t mean he will be in the right zone,” the manager said. “The performance zone is where you are focused and relaxed - and that’s what is difficult in sport.
“Sometimes when you are too focused you are not relaxed, and sometimes when you play against your former club you are not necessarily in that zone. [I will have] a little word, yes.
“He can help us win the game. But I know that not one player will win us the game. We need a top-level team performance where everybody is spot on in their discipline, sharp physically and ready to work for the team.
“If everyone does that then maybe Alexis can make the difference, but it’s not especially on him. We need all our players.”
If Arsenal are to progress to the quarter-finals, it is imperative that they succeed where so many have failed before them - namely, shut out the Barca triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
|Arsenal have scored in their last 13 Champions League games, their best run since their 21 games in a row from October 2003 to November 2005
Arsenal and Barcelona’s seven previous Champions League games have produced 27 goals, an average of 3.86 per match
Lionel Messi has scored six goals in four Champions League games against Arsenal. However, he has yet to score at the Emirates with Barcelona
Last season, they scored 122 goals between them, this term they already have 91. It is simply not enough to stop Messi - the four-time Ballon d’Or winner - for if you concentrate on him alone, you leave Suarez (41 goals this season) and Neymar (23 in 32 appearances) to run riot.
The Gunners’ best hope remains in cutting off the supply to Barca’s crown jewels but, as Wenger says, his side must remember to attack themselves on occasion and push the visitors on to the back foot.
“When you look at the number of goals they’ve scored, it tells you a lot about [the task facing Arsenal],” Wenger said. “I think Messi is still Messi, Suarez is still the Suarez that we knew in the Premier League, and Neymar gets stronger every year.
“When you come out of this game, if you don’t concede a goal, your defenders have had a marvellous game. I believe on the other hand that we have the potential to score a goal or two against them.
“For us, it is important to find the right balance between defending well against their exceptional potential and using our offensive potential in a very efficient way.”
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