As the Champions League Round of 16 fixtures resume on Tuesday, the marquee fixture of the knockout stages is upon us - Arsenal vs Barcelona. One team comes into match after a drab 0-0 draw against a side one tier below them in the league, having scored a total of 16 goals since the turn of the year, and two points behind the league leaders in one of the tightly contested Premier League title race in recent memory. The other team comes into this fixture on the back of a 2-1 win that put them eight points clear of the La Liga table, with their forward lineup in red-hot form (36 goals in 2016 so far) and just the matter of going 32 games unbeaten in all competitions — the longest run in their history.
On paper, Arsenal vs Barcelona is heavily in favour of the Spanish giants. But football, as they say, is not played on paper.
Even Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose side were knocked out by the Spanish giants in 2011, acknowledged the superiority of Barcelona's world-class squad, saying: "Obviously Barcelona are favourites.
"Of course, our world is not perfect and no team is perfect. But Barca are not far from it, I must say."
In Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, Arsenal faces the most potent strike force in the game — and a team that will probably be more than halfway to the Champions League quarterfinals after Tuesday's match.
Tactically and physically, Barcelona will ensure the first leg at Emirates Stadium will be one of the toughest matches the hosts have faced in a very long time.
It's a far cry from Saturday's opponent, Hull, in a drab, goalless FA Cup draw - as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is the first to recognize.
"It's more difficult to prepare against Hull than against Barcelona," Wenger said Monday. "Because against Barcelona everybody is focused, naturally, so it's more to create belief and confidence - because Barcelona is super-favorite in this game. Against Hull, it's more to raise the urgency level.
"Tomorrow, everybody's convinced that we need absolutely to be as a whole squad totally focused, to have a chance... No team is perfect, (though) they are not far from it, Barcelona, I must say. We have to use every moment in the game where we have a chance to score."
Wenger has demanded Arsenal learn the lessons of their past Champions League meltdowns.
Wenger's side have been eliminated from Europe's elite club competition in the last 16 for the previous five years, with the last four of those failures coming after they were beaten in the first leg.
Monaco last season, Bayern Munich in the two years before that and also AC Milan have all taken advantage of the Gunners' defensive weaknesses and mental fragility in the knockout stages.
But Wenger is tired of watching his team come apart at the seams in the tournament he still yearns to win for the first time and has made a point of warning his players to show more composure when Barca arrive at the Emirates Stadium.
"It's a good opportunity to show we have learned because it is true we have given ourselves a difficult task after the first home leg and maybe after we have been a bit too keen to make the difference in the first game," Wenger told reporters on Monday.
Here are some things to know about Tuesday's match:
Messi brings not only his exceptional talent but also an impressive track record against Arsenal into Tuesday's game.
Barcelona has beaten Arsenal in their two previous meetings in the knockout stages, with Messi scoring all four goals at the Camp Nou in 2010 as the hosts romped to a 4-1 victory on the night and a 6-3 win on aggregate.
The following season, Messi scored twice in a 3-1 victory that put the home side through 4-3 on aggregate.
Only a torn hamstring kept him out of the 2006 final, when Barcelona came back to beat a 10-man Arsenal side 2-1 in Paris.
It's no secret that Barcelona's attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar get on very well — on and off the field.
"Although they are different characters, on the pitch they are pure harmony," Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. "It may sound like an exaggeration, but I say Messi, Suarez and Neymar are the best friends in the world, possibly the best in the history of football."
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also highlighted the trio's team spirit.
"They have a great solidarity," he said. "Messi gave the ball to Suarez (from a penalty) because he wanted him to be the best goalscorer . when he (Messi) had the opportunity to score his 300th goal. That means there is something special there."
While the spotlight is bound to fall on Messi, the threat posed by Suarez will not be lost on Arsenal, or the crowd.
His prolific three-year spell with Liverpool nearly won the Premier League for his former club in 2014. He followed that up by scoring both goals as Uruguay beat England 2-1 at the World Cup, effectively ending its hopes of progress from the group stage.
Suarez is in scintillating form this season for Barcelona, both domestically — where he is the league's top scorer with 25 goals — and in the Champions League, where he scored five goals in as many games.
Arsenal may well regret, yet again, the club's failed bid for him in 2013.
Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta has been studying his Arsenal opponents and says he knows how challenging they can be.
Iniesta said Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta — with whom he grew up at Barcelona's famed La Masia youth academy — is a great player and "in the youth ranks he was a team leader."
Iniesta is also wary of former teammate Alexis Sanchez, whom he described as "very unpredictable" when attacking.
"He is physically strong and very capable," Iniesta said.
Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin is another product of the Barcelona youth academy.
Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech will return for Arsenal after being rested for Saturday's goalless FA Cup draw with Hull, while Sanchez and Olivier Giroud are set to start after being on the bench.
Sanchez was lackluster as a substitute but manager Arsene Wenger has no doubts about the Chile international's readiness to face the side he left in 2014 after three years.
"Don't worry about Tuesday," Wenger said. "He'll be tuned in. I think it's more focus. Sanchez, I don't think he was completely ready to come on."
LUIS ENRIQUE'S GOALS
Luis Enrique takes on Arsenal for the first time as Barcelona's coach. However, during the midfielder's playing career, he scored in both matches when the clubs met in the group stage of the Champions League in 1999.
He scored in a 1-1 first-leg draw at the Nou Camp and then again in a 4-2 win at Wembley Stadium, Arsenal's temporary home for Champions League matches.
Factfile on Arsenal and Barcelona ahead of their Champions League last 16, first leg clash at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday:
Form: FA Cup holders Arsenal were left with an unwanted replay after a goalless draw against Hull City in their fifth-round clash at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. In the Premier League, the Gunners defeated leaders Leicester last week but had to come from behind and needed a 95th-minute goal from Danny Welbeck to secure the three points.
Barcelona went nine points clear at the top of La Liga thanks to first-half goals from Luis Suarez and Neymar in a 2-1 win at Las Palmas on Saturday. Suarez opened the scoring early on with his 41st goal of the season, but Willian Jose deservedly levelled for the hosts inside 10 minutes. Neymar restored the lead from close range before the break, but the European champions had to withstand a late onslaught from the Canary Islanders to stretch their unbeaten run in all competitions to 32 games.
Arsenal - Arsene Wenger - 66 yrs
Barcelona - Luis Enrique - 45 yrs
Leading scorers in all competitions:
Arsenal - Olivier Giroud 18
Barcelona - Luis Suarez 41
Domestic league performance:
Arsenal - Third in the Premier League on 51 points, the same as London rivals Tottenham and two points behind surprise leaders Leicester after 26 games.
Barcelona - Top in Spain with 63 points after 25 games. They have won 20 of those matches and have lost just twice. They have an eight-point advantage over Atletico Madrid who were held 0-0 by Villarreal on Sunday.
Group stage performance:
Arsenal - Second in Group F behind Bayern Munich
Barcelona - Winners of Group E ahead of Roma
European Cup/Champions League best performances:
Arsenal - Runners-up 2006
Barcelona - Winners in 1992, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015
Arsenal - 13x English champions, 12x FA Cup, 2x League Cup, 14x Community Shield, 1x European Cup Winners Cup, 1x Fairs Cup
Barcelona - 23x Spanish champions, 27x Spanish Cup, 11x Spanish Super Cup, 5x European Super Cup, 4x European Cup Winners Cup, 3x Fairs Cup, 3x Club World Cup
Barcelona 1 Arsenal 1 - 1999/2000 Champions League group stage
Arsenal 2 Barcelona 4 - 1999/2000 Champions League group stage
Barcelona 2 Arsenal 1 - 2005/06 Champions League final
Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2 - 2009/10 Champions League quarter-finals
Barcelona 4 Arsenal 1 - 2009/10 Champions League quarter-finals
Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1 - 2010/11 Champions League last 16
Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 - 2010/11 Champions League last 16
With inputs from AP, AFP
First Published On : Feb 23, 2016 20:21 IST