By Richard Clarke
Slick, stylish, soft and unsuccessful - that is the good and bad side of Arsenal's reputation.
Supposedly, Arsène Wenger's team are easy on the eye but, at the same time, all too easily swept aside when the titles are really at stake.
The manager rallies hard against this widely-discussed view in his press conferences; citing a decade in upper echelons of the Champions League, the building of Emirates Stadium as well, of course, as the construction of a new young side.
But then, somewhere in the proceedings, someone will mention the lack of silverware since 2005.
That is cast-iron fact and, if the bookmakers are to be believed, one that won't change this year. And even if Arsenal do win the title you can bet another detractor will label them ‘big-game bottlers' after home-and-away defeats to the two main rivals.
However Wenger knows that beating the mighty Barcelona would seriously shift the thinking surrounding his side. The Spanish champions are considered the best team in Europe and knocked out both Manchester United and Chelsea on route to Champions League glory last May.
They arrive at Emirates Stadium this evening for a Quarter-Final first leg weighed down with meaning. Thankfully, on the eve of the game, the interest in Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry meeting their former sides had began to subside. It allowed Wenger to contemplate what victory would do for his team.
"I believe that this side is on a great run, has a great spirit and a great togetherness," he said. "The ingredients are there to deliver something special, so let's go for it.
"The opinions are there to be changed and what changes opinions is the performances. What is good in sport is that people assess continuously something that looks to be definite but actually is always moving. And what moves the opinions of people is how well we play.
"I believe we have changed the opinions of many people in England since July and what is important now, until the end of the season, is how we will turn up.
"We can make history by kicking Barcelona out. That's an opportunity we have. We know we play against a great team but let's make sure we are not too much in respect of them.
"The danger is the hype over them. That is where we have to be realistic, pragmatic and play our own game. So let's be brave, express our strengths and have a real go."
The day before the game, Fabregas had a 40 per cent chance of playing and Wenger said he'd be prepared to do the final testing in the warm-up if it meant his skipper could play. William Gallas is back in the squad. The centre half was thought to be some weeks away from a return from his calf injury but Tuesday's training session was, in fact, his third in succession. He should partner Thomas Vermaelen, who is back from a ban. Slight niggles to Abou Diaby, Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri will not prevent their involvement.
It would be lovely to think that if Arsenal stopped Lionel Messi they would stop Barca. But it frankly isn't the case.
However the little Argentinean is undoubtedly the world's finest footballer right now. He is averaging a goal a game in La Liga this season and hit back-to-back hat-tricks against Valencia and Zaragoza earlier this month. However it is not the number of goals that impresses, it is their consistent beauty.
When Wenger said the following he was not referring to Messi directly - but he could have been.
"I believe that when you do something, whether it be writing, dancing or playing football, if you do it at the best level it becomes art. Because what is art? It is something that is always good to watch."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the talismanic Henry also see the football pitch as their canvas. Barca have been robbed of midfield schemer Andreas Iniesta because of a thigh problem. But Xavi is back after injury and the less heralded Pedro Rodriguez has been holding down a regular place in such exalted company therefore he must be top-draw.
Yet the artists have their enforcers. Carlos Puyol and Gabriel Milito create a ‘fancy-dan free zone' at centre back while Yaya Toure is an archetypal ballwinner in midfield. Kolo's younger brother might have been fulfilling that role for Arsenal this evening had they extended his stay beyond one pre-season friendly at Barnet almost seven years ago.
Manchester United were well-beaten in last year's Final but the Semi-Final against Chelsea was a close and controversial affair. Guus Hiddink's side played with a shackling shape and, broadly speaking, made it work. Wenger, true to form, seemed reluctant to follow suit.
"Chelsea are a team with a lot of experience who can stick to 90 minutes of discipline because they are all 28, 29 and 30-years-old. It is mentally demanding when you don't touch the ball because it is important that you don't lose your confidence.
"But Barcelona are a team that always keep their style and defend their philosophy till the end so what we have to do is to try and put them on the back foot and play at an English rhythm."
This, of course, was the purist's draw. The 2006 Final was built up in the same way but the 18th-minute sending off of Jens Lehmann stopped it ever living up to that publicity. Only seven of 22 starters from that game are still with their respective clubs - three for Arsenal, four for Barcelona (meanwhile Henry has switched sides). However the philosophies remain the same.
"Everyone is expecting it to be a great game," said Wenger. "But then in that Final everybody was expecting it to be a great game and after 20 minutes it was ten against 11.
"It is difficult to predict but the intentions on both sides are positive, so it is promising that it will be a good game and I think it will be.
"I think we are two teams who try to play so I leave others to judge."
And Wenger intends to alter that judgement in the space of 180 exhilarating minutes.
- As we are sure many supporters will be aware, today is the ninth anniversary of the passing of David Rocastle. The legendary Arsenal player died on March 31, 2001 at the age of just 33 after suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphona. Everyone at the Club's thoughts are with David's family at this time.
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