LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 31: Lionel Messi (R) of Barcelona is pursued by Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg match between Arsenal and FC Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on March 31, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Kickoff: Wednesday, February 16, 2:45 EST, Emirates Stadium
TV Coverage: Fox Soccer Channel (coverage starts at 2:30)
SBN Barcelona coverage: Barca Blaugranes
The Champions League round of 16 starts for Arsenal tomorrow as they welcome FC Barcelona to North London for the first leg of their cup tie in a rematch of last spring's two-leg encounter which saw the Catalans run out 6-3 winners on aggregate.
Barcelona, of course, are essentially the best club side in the world, despite having been sent out of last year's Champions League by Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan (who went on to win the cup). Given space in which to operate, the Blaugranes are capable of victories such as their 5-0 laying-waste of Real Madrid earlier this year, but they are not invulnerable, as Hercules and Sporting Gijon can attest to.
Indeed, Barcelona are a bit like a tricky boss in a video game--eight times out of ten, they will annihilate their opponent either instantly or over the long haul. The chinks in their armor are small, but are nonetheless present, and with enough patience, luck, and pattern recognition, they can be slowly taken apart.
Pressing opponents, winning the ball back quickly, and maintaining possession are the keys of their game, and Arsenal will have to press in packs equally hard to win the ball back. Both sides are not great without the ball, but perhaps no side in the world wins it back and keeps it quite like Barcelona.
The Gunners are not without their own elements of danger, however. Robin van Persie is playing some of the best football of his life at the moment, scoring every 88 minutes since he returned from injury at the turn of the year, and operating as the locus of a swirling maelstrom that includes Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arhsavin, and Samir Nasri. Many tactical minds point to Walcott as the key to unlocking the back line of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal, and Maxwell tomorrow, as his pace stunned Barca last year at the Emirates after his introduction. Indeed, Lionel Messi says that Walcott could cause serious trouble tomorrow.
Arsène Wenger has said that Arsenal will look to attack at the Emirates, even if that is not their plan at Nou Camp, but whether they will press and look to play through the middle, rather than down the flanks, remains to be seen. Alves gets forward often, and may leave space for Arhsavin or Walcott to move into, and Walcott caused Maxwell no end of trouble last year, so Arsenal may opt to play quite wide tomorrow.
Either way, keeping possession will not be easy to do, and neutralizing the constant threat of Messi and closing down the options for master facilitator Xavi. Keeping control of space and passing lanes is how Gijon managed a draw three days ago.
Bacary Sagna will miss the match on a suspension from the last group stage match. Abou Diaby is also out with a calf problem. Tomas Rosicky is available, and Samir Nasri is medically fit as well, although Wenger may be loathe to risk him to start tomorrow.
Eboué Djourou Koscielny Clichy
Walcott van Persie Arshavin
with Nasri, Rosicky, and Bendtner waiting in the wings if Arsenal start to fall behind...