Potential thriller: Barcelona vs Arsenal
With the upcoming Champions League draw for the knock-out stages on Thursday, there are quite a few interesting fixtures that may be drawn up. The rules stipulate that a club may not play against either another club from the same nation, or against a club which qualified from the same group, and group winners shall only face runners up that do not fall under the previously mentioned categories.
Thus, Barcelona shall not be drawn against Celtic, Malaga, Real Madrid, Valencia, PSG, Schalke, Dortmund, Juventus, Bayern Munich or Manchester United. This means that there’s a one in five chance that Barca shall be drawn against Arsenal, leading to a clash in the Champions League between the two clubs for the third time in four years.
Games Played: 8
Barcelona wins: 5
Arsenal wins: 1
Clashing for the first time in 1999, Barcelona have always held the upper hand in this fixture, with Arsenal’s first and only win coming just last year, when they ran out 2 – 1 winners at the Emirates before a 1 – 3 loss in the reverse fixture ended their participation in the tournament. In fact, as the numbers above suggest, being drawn against Barcelona has simply indicated the death knell for Arsenal’s European campaign on every single occasion, including dashing their title hopes in the tournament of ’05 – ’06. One notable thing though is that every game between these two has seen each team score at least one goal on every occasion, with the lowest tally coming in a 1 – 1 draw when these two teams first met, and the highest being a 4 – 2 win for Barca just 20 days later. Not the greatest record to fall back on then, for the Gunners.
With 23 goals in the league this season, Messi has scored just three fewer league goals than all of Arsenal combined. If that isn’t sufficient to establish that Arsenal are under major threat from the Argentine, one can refer to the fact that Messi has scored six times in his last three fixtures against the Gunners, including four goals in a 4 – 1 thrashing at Camp Nou in 2010. With feet that are the quickest in the world of football, Messi is bound to torment the Arsenal defence, and they would do well to play Koscielny as Vermaelen’s partner, instead of Mertesacker, if they are to avoid being punished by Messi.
While Giroud and Podolski have been hot and cold this season, Arsenal’s other summer recruit, Santi Cazorla, has quickly moulded himself into the team’s most important player with his quality and consistency. Along with Walcott, and the aforementioned strike duo, Cazorla is Arsenal’s top scorer in the league with 4 goals, and a further 3 assists. He has spent a total of 9 years in the La Liga and will know all about what it’s like to face up to Barcelona. One concern though, will be that Cazorla’s performances in Europe haven’t quite been of the same calibre as in domestic competition, as he has no goals or assists in his five appearances this season. For someone with the amount of talent that Cazorla has, though, it is merely another statistic which will make no difference once on the pitch.
Although the face of Arsenal has changed considerably since his departure, Fabregas will know that Wenger’s philosophy remains the same, and will try to make the best use of the knowledge he gained at the Emirates. After a lukewarm first season on his rejoinment with the Spanish giants, Fabregas has really hit his stride this season, picking up a team high 9 assists, in addition to 6 goals in all competitions. His pulling of the strings has been important to Barcelona, with his presence allowing Iniesta to play up front on the left, and keeping a talent like David Villa out of the starting eleven. As long as emotions do not cloud his judgement, he could be the single most crucial factor to the outcome of this fixture.
Barcelona 2 – 1 Arsenal
On the 17th of May, 2006, when their trophy ‘drought’ hadn’t even begun, Arsenal nearly reached the pinnacle of club football when they marched into the finals of that year’s Champions League. It was a time when the King, Henry, was still around for the Gunners, as was the smiling assassin, Ronaldinho, at Barcelona. It turned out to be a night of new records, as Arsenal became the first London club to ever make this far in the competition’s history, while their ‘keeper, Jens Lehmann became the first player to be sent off in a European Cup final, getting a straight red in the 18th minute. Almunia came on for the Gunners, while a full-haired Valdes was in goal for the Blaugrana, and kept Henry out on several key occasions. The Frenchman did make a difference though, as it was his free kick that went straight to Sol Campbell, who headed it past Valdes to give Arsenal an unlikely lead in the first half.
Arsenal toiled to keep their lead, and even Henry was often seen helping out defensively, earning a yellow card for a defensive lunge in an increasingly tense atmosphere. Barcelona’s quality eventually shone through though, and when Larsson flicked the ball on to Eto’o, the Cameroonian striker made no mistake, to level scores. The goal gave the Catalans a lift, and another goal came within five minutes, as another ball from Larsson found Belletti in the box, and the Brazilian finished from a tight angle, as the ball deflected in off Almunia. There was no way back for Arsene Wenger’s men, and it was Frank Rijkaard who was left with the biggest smile.
And the Champions League trophy.