The Champions League returns to English soil this midweek as Arsenal host Barcelona in the first leg of the pair’s round of 16 clash (7.45pm Tuesday on BT Sport Europe).
Arsenal almost missed out on the knockout stage altogether after winning only one of their first four games in Group F. Victories over Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos in their final two encounters were enough for them to progress behind Bayern Munich in second place, though, but the majority of the north Londoners’ fans have feared the worst ever since their side were drawn against holders Barcelona.
Arsene Wenger (pictured), who has only ever beaten Barca once in his managerial career, believes his team will never have a better chance of overcoming the Catalans than on Tuesday night. Arsenal will have to cede possession, remain disciplined and take any opportunities that come their way in and around the Barcelona box if they are to secure a positive result to take to the Camp Nou for the return leg next month. There is plenty of quality within the Gunners ranks, but each player will have to perform close to his maximum if the hosts are to come out on top.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are attempting to become the first team to successfully defend the Champions League since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990. Luis Enrique’s men qualified for this stage of the competition rather more comfortably than their English counterparts, with a return of four wins and two draws seeing them finish at the summit of a group that also contained Bayer Leverkusen, Roma and BATE Borisov.
Both domestically and in Europe, Barca have been imperious at times this season. The attacking trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez have scored 81 goals in all competitions this term – including 10 in the Champions League – and is arguably the best of its kind in the history of the game, while the midfield three of Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets is perhaps the best in the world today. Barca have not lost a single match since a 2-1 reverse at Sevilla in early October, and their form in 2016 – 13 wins in 15 outings in the league and Copa del Rey – suggests they will be able to preserve their 30-game unbeaten run for a few days longer at the very least.
Arsenal are still without long-term absentee Jack Wilshere, with fans starting to wonder whether he will feature at all this season. Centre-back Gabriel Paulista is a major doubt with a hamstring problem, with Santi Cazorla (knee) and Tomas Rosicky (thigh) still a few weeks away from returning. Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin, Petr Cech, Nacho Monreal and Alexis Sanchez are all likely to return to the starting XI after sitting out of the FA Cup draw with Hull City on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, Barcelona have very few selection issues ahead of the meeting at the Emirates, with Rafinha the only man carrying an injury. Arda Turan is suspended, while Marc Bartra, Sandro Ramirez and Douglas have all been left out of the squad, but Gerard Pique will return to the starting XI after being rested at the weekend.
While it is difficult to see Arsenal overcoming the Spanish and European champions over two legs, they could certainly hold Barca to a draw on Tuesday. Wenger has already hinted that his team will look to “have a go” at their illustrious opponents, which should make for an entertaining and open encounter. There could easily be a fair few goals at the Emirates Stadium this midweek. Arsenal are 4/1 to win this home game, with Barcelona a best-priced 8/11 with the bookies to prevail. A draw may be the answer.