As football games come they don't get much harder than a trip to the Nou Camp to play Barcelona. That's the task facing Arsenal tonight in the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie. The first leg at the Emirates was an excellent game for all neutrals to watch, and despite giving up the majority of possession Arsenal managed a come from behind 2-1 win. Away goals can be incredibly important in European ties, and Barcelona will be very happy to have scored away from home.
Arsenal went to the same venue to play the same team in the quarter finals of this competition last season, and they went into the game all square after a 2-2 draw at home. They had a very much understrength team on the night, as their injury problems had reached crisis level, and they were soundly beaten 4-1. They did score the first goal on the night, and with the right pass from Abu Diaby they might well have gone 2-0 up, but their makeshift team just could not handle Lionel Messi on the night, as he scored all four Barcelona goals.
Arsenal may have some injury problems tonight, but they are nowhere near the level that there were on that night. The Arsenal defence should be the one that coped quite admirably in the home leg, and they will have to be at their very best to cope with all the threats posed by Barcelona. Laurent Koscielny had a great game in the first leg, and he seems ideally suited to play against a team that play genuine football like Barcelona. There's a lot of difference between the defensive tasks that are required against Barcelona compared to how he has to play against the likes of Stoke RFC or Birmingham.
Unfortunately Alex Song hasn't recovered in time to make the trip, and it means either Abu Diaby or Denilson will probably play in midfield alongside Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere. Arsene Wenger said yesterday that Cesc is 90% certain to play, and those odds are good enough for me. Wilshere picked up a knock on Saturday, but he declared himself fit and ready to play if selected. At the start of the season the biggest question about Arsenal's midfield was who would accompany Cesc and Song, but the question no longer needs to be asked. Wilshere has played so well this season that he has cemented his place in the starting line up, and the future is bright for both him and Arsenal.
Cesc will be aching to play in the stadium he used to frequent as a boy, and to show the locals all he has learned at Arsenal. I know he would fit perfectly into the current Barcelona side, but he has so much to offer any team in the world. He creates chances more often than any other midfielder in any of the top five leagues in Europe, and the odds are that he will create a few chances tonight. Arsenal's hopes of progressing may well depend on their ability to tuck those chances away when they come along.
I think Diaby might get the nod over Denilson, as he performed slightly better than him at the weekend. He doesn't have the defensive discipline that Song has shown in the past, but his mistakes tend to be closer to the opposing box. I think Denilson loses possession in Arsenal's half too often, and against Barcelona that could be very costly. I hope whichever one of them is selected can put in a performance to show all of the doubters exactly what they can do. I will freely admit to being one of those doubters when both of those players are concerned, but I would still be delighted to see either of them prove me wrong.
The front three players should see Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri in the wide roles with the centre forward role probably being taken by Nicklas Bendtner. Marouane Chamakh would probably feel he did enough in the 30 minutes he got on Saturday to play from the start tonight, as he looked to have regained some of his form at last. I think the boss could go with either player, as the both pose a similar threat and it's one Barcelona aren't too comfortable with. When the chance arrives Arsenal need to be able to deliver good crosses, and the heading ability of either of those players could prove to be very valuable.
Arsenal have brought a 19 man squad to Barcelona for the game, but only 18 of them can be named on the night. The surprise inclusion in the squad is Robin Van Persie, as the boss said he has reacted very well in training in the last couple of days. Apparently he will have a fitness test today, and if he reacts well enough to it he might have a chance of playing tonight. I would be very surprised to see him in the starting line up, but if he passes his fitness test he might just have a brief cameo from the bench if he's needed.
Even if RVP doesn't play tonight he could well feature against "Manure" in the FA Cup on Saturday which would be a welcome boost for Arsenal. When he picked up his injury the boss said he was due to return against Blackburn after the international break, but he appears to have made a miraculous recovery at a crucial time for Arsenal. It means he should definitely be available for the league encounter away to West Brom a week later, and that's a game Arsenal have to win if they are going to win the Premier League.
The boss has been accused of playing mind games by including RVP in the squad, but he claims that he is very bad at them. He said that RVP felt good and wanted a fitness test, and if he is 100% fit today he will play. Cesc is delighted to have RVP back in the squad, and he says he is the perfect striker for a midfield player to play with. He seems to be as surprised as the rest of us to see RVP in the squad, and hopefully he can surprise Barcelona on the pitch too.
Arsenal might be missing Theo Walcott, and he's a player who is capable of finding space to run into on the Nou Camp pitch. However they are lucky to have both Nasri and Arshavin to play either side of the striker, and they are both capable of magical football at times. Arshavin should have had a couple of goals against Sunderland on Saturday, and hopefully he will be looking to make amends tonight. Nasri could have scored in that game too with a very well taken free kick, but the keeper made an excellent save. I'm hoping that the chances they almost scored on Saturday will be converted into goals tonight, as Arsenal will need to score to go through in my opinion.
Barcelona play beautiful football, and they also put a lot of pressure on their opponents when they're not in possession. Arsenal struggled to cope with the pressure Barcelona put on them in the first half at home, but they still managed to create chances during that half. In the second half they coped a little better, and I'm hoping they can do so from the start tonight. I think Arsenal will get chances to score, but they will have to make those chances count if they are to get the result they want.
A draw will be enough for Arsenal to qualify for the quarter finals, and even a high scoring one goal defeat will do the trick. I'm predicting a 3-2 win for Arsenal with Cesc, Nasri and Arshavin all scoring, but I don't think I'll be putting any money on that prediction. It should be a great game for all neutrals to watch, but I'm sure it won't be an easy one for Arsenal fans. There is no doubt that Arsenal can beat any team when they play at their best, and they have their strongest team available. Tonight's team will not quite be their strongest one, but it's still a team that's capable of getting the required result.
Barcelona have a few injury problems of their own, and it probably means that Javier Mascherano will play in midfield for them. Any time I have seen Mascherano play he has walked a very tight line with the referee, and I have no doubt that he will do the same tonight. If he can't get the ball he's perfectly happy to take the man out instead, and I just hope the referee can be strong enough tonight if that is the case. Surely the referees in the Champions League can't be as poor as the ones in the Premier League have been recently.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from the first leg at the Emirates.
See You Tomorrow.