As football games go for Arsenal they just don't get much bigger than the visit of Barcelona to the Emirates in the last 16 of the Champions League. Barcelona are without doubt the best club team in the world at the moment, and it will not be an easy game at all for Arsenal. In the Spanish league this season Barcelona have played 11 away games, and until last Saturday they had won them all. They only drew 1-1 away to lowly Sporting Gijon on Saturday, but it's still a very impressive record.
It's easy to say that the top flight in Spain isn't as competitive as it is in England, and there's a fair degree of truth in that, but to be able to go out and do the business in every game is no mean feat. A lot of people would say that Arsenal are more like a Spanish team than an English one, and again that is true. It could also be said that Barcelona would prefer to play a team who play in that style, but they're not used to playing against players of the quality Arsenal have every week.
When Arsenal were comprehensively beaten by Barcelona last season they were in the middle of an injury crisis that ruined their season, but things are different this season. Arsenal will have a much stronger team available to them both individually and collectively, and they have the ability to cause Barcelona some real problems. Barcelona are fond of playing a high defensive line, but Theo Walcott showed how to exploit that in both Champions League games last season. They will be wary of his speed, and they will counter it any way they can.
Don't forget that no matter how good Barcelona are they will still do all they can to fool the referee into thinking they have been fouled, and their tactics can be as cynical as the most cynical Italian teams at times. If Walcott looks like he might get a chance to break they will take him out as early as possible, and then protest to the referee that he has dived.
Arsenal have a height advantage, as does any team playing against what is the shortest team in Europe, and with Carlos Puyol missing there is a chance for Arsenal to take advantage at set pieces. It may not be overly pretty at times, but recently both Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny have scored from corners, and with Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin providing the crosses from those corners it's something Arsenal need to get right on the night. Puyol is not the tallest player, but he has the knack of getting his head to any ball that comes into their box, and hopefully his absence will give Arsenal an edge.
The Arsenal team is likely to be the same as the one that beat Wolves 2-0 on Saturday with the exception of Emmanuel Eboue coming in for the suspended Bacary Sagna. There is a possibility that Samir Nasri will play, as he has recovered early from his hamstring injury, but I would be surprised if Arsene Wenger risked him. Arsenal have an awful lot of important games in the short term, and there is no point in setting Nasri's recovery back by playing him too soon.
After tonight Arsenal have an FA Cup game against Leyton Orient on Sunday, a vitally important Premier League game against Stoke RFC next Wednesday, and then the Carling Cup final against Birmingham the following Sunday. There are plenty of chances for Nasri to play in those games, and they are all vitally important games for Arsenal. How often does a team play four matches in a row in four different competitions. I don't for one second think Arsenal will win all four trophies this season, but they will certainly have a better idea of their chances in those competitions after the next four games.
They could be in a good position going to Barcelona for the return leg, in the last eight of the FA Cup, one point off the top of the Premier League, and in possession of their first trophy in almost six years. It's a prospect I am looking forward to, and I think it's well within the reach of the current Arsenal team, as long as they can stay injury free. It will certainly make the next four games very exciting, and I'm really looking forward to them.
In tonight's game Arsenal have to face the best player in the world, and they will remember how Lionel Messi put four goals past them in the Nou Camp last season. It's hard to know how to handle a player with his exceptional skill, but the best way in my opinion is to starve him of possession. If Arsenal can have the majority of possession they have every chance of getting a result that will give them a chance of qualifying going into the away leg on March 8th. Barcelona are very fond of keeping the ball for long stretches, and when Arsenal do regain it they cannot afford to give it away cheaply.
Despite the fact that Barcelona haven't conceded many goals this season I think Arsenal can take advantage of their defence, and Cesc Fabregas has the ability to do that all on his own. When Cesc is at his best there are few players in the world who are capable of making things happen like he does. He will be playing against his hometown club tonight, and he will hopefully want to show them exactly why they can't afford to buy him. With the large sums of money changing hands recently for average players, his valuation will have soared, even in the eyes of Barcelona.
I have to admit that the inclusion of Eboue in the team worries me, as I don't think he has played well in recent weeks when he has been included. Hopefully he can have one of his better games tonight, and as long as he gets the defensive end of his game right I'll be happy.
If Arsenal are going to get a result tonight they will have to play as if their lives depended on it. I hope to see 11 players coming off the pitch drenched in sweat, and smiling from ear to ear after a famous victory. I'm predicting a 2-1 win for Arsenal with RVP and Cesc getting the goals, and that should give them some hope going into that away leg.
There's a campaign being run by Le Grove to change the words of the Cesc chant in the stadium tonight, and hopefully it will be taken up by the fans. The new words are "Hands off Cesc Fabregas", and they're obviously aimed at Barcelona, and their underhand tactics to try to get Arsenal's captain to join them. I'm sure Barcelona will again spend all of next summer telling the world how Cesc wants to join them, and how Arsenal have to sell him to them. The fans will get their chance to let Barcelona know how they feel about them tonight, and I'm expecting my TV to be ringing with the chant.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from last season's 2-2 draw with Barcelona.
See You Tomorrow.