Monday, 22 February 2016

Arsenal v Barcelona: Champions League Preview

As opponents come they don't get any better than the current Champions League holders and Arsenal are facing up to their toughest task of the season on Tuesday night. They have had success in many of their big games this season and they managed to beat the next best team to Barcelona when they triumphed over Bayern Munich in the group stages of the Champions League. That 2-0 win at home was a great performance and result even if the return game ended in a drubbing.

I've watched Barcelona a few times this season and they can be quite incredible going forward, but they have vulnerabilities in defence and those vulnerabilities have to give Arsenal some hope. When Arsenal won at home to Bayern they fought a rearguard action and took the chances which came their way and they will have to try to do the same to have any hope against Barcelona. Arsenal have been poor in front of goal for a couple of months at least, but they need to find that killer touch when it matters most.

Barcelona's attacking trio is enough to strike fear into any defence and Barcelona are going to have plenty of possession to feed those three players. All three of them are capable of scoring goals out of nothing on their own and you cannot drop you guard against them for a single second. As good as Luis Suarez and Neymar might be it's the threat of Lionel Messi that is the biggest one to Arsenal as he is quite simply the best player in the world.

For all their strengths though Barcelona have weaknesses too and Arsenal have some of the tools necessary to exploit those weaknesses. They are vulnerable to pace on the break though and their defending of set pieces can be suspect at times too. If Arsenal are going to get any joy from the game they need to take advantage of those weaknesses at every opportunity possible.

With that in mind Arsene Wenger needs to think carefully about his team selection on the night and try to choose players who can best suit Arsenal's needs. Most of the team more or less picks itself and I would imagine it will be very close to the team which beat Leicester 2-1 last week. The changes made to that team could be what makes the difference though and they need to be carefully considered.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started that game and he has struggled for form this season, but the confidence shown in him by the boss recently seems like it could be paying off. He can be very quick and tricky on the ball too, but I don't think he's the ideal choice to play on the right. Despite his recent poor form I would opt for Theo Walcott because he's more likely to use his pace to get in behind the Barcelona defence. Maybe, just maybe the equalising goal he got against Leicester is what he needed to kickstart his season and he carries more of a goalscoring threat than most others in the squad.

Walcott has taken a lot of stick for his recent performances while Alexis Sanchez is a certain starter no matter how poor he has been recently. Since his return from injury he seems to have got progressively worse with each game and it's a very worrying trend. I'm not sure if he's trying too hard or his standard move of coming inside on to his right has been found out, but something is affecting his game badly.

I wouldn't suggest for a second that Alexis should be left out as he is too good to omit. If Arsenal are going to have any chance they need to get something from their best players and Alexis fits into that mould. Maybe playing against his former club will bring out the best in him and he'll get a chance to show them what they're missing since they sold him to Arsenal.

There's a real case to be made for Danny Welbeck to start too, but I think it's still too early in his recovery after missing 10 months through injury. For me Olivier Giroud has to play as the central striker despite his lack of pace, as he's the player most likely to take advantage at set pieces. He has the ability to get on the end of the deliveries of the most creative player in the top five leagues in Europe so far this season.

That man is of course Mesut Ozil and given the chance he can deliver killer passes to open any defence or deliver set pieces right on to the heads of Arsenal players. In Ozil and Sachez Arsenal have two world class players who can upset any team and we need the best from them on the biggest stage. If Arsenal are going to get something from the game the chances are Ozil will be the man to set up any or all of their scorers on the night.

Francis Couelin has to start in front of the back four and the chances are Aaron Ramsey will play alongside him. There's a case to be made for playing a second defensive midfielder, but no one else has the defensive discipline of Coquelin. Mathieu Flamini is the most likely candidate, but he is too fond of wandering forward to neglect his defensive duties and he could very quickly find himself on the wrong side of the referee if he plays.

All in all it's a huge task for Arsenal to try to get anything on the night, never mind over two legs. They have the ability to do so if they can remain compact at the back and use the weapons they have wisely in attack. They will have to do so much better than they have done recently, but part of the joy of supporting a team is believing they can win every single time they play.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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