Arsenal suffered a humbling defeat at the hands of the Catalans in last year’s competition and it appears pre-destined that the two footballing forces will collide again this season.
The possibility of drawing Barcelona was created by the Gunners’ second place finish in Group H, and the probability is generated by the competition’s format. Arsene Wenger’s men cannot draw Shakhtar Donetsk in the last-16, having faced them in the group stages, nor can they draw compatriots and group winners Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea. They are left with a one in four chance of drawing Messi et al, with Real Madrid, Schalke and last season’s runners-up Bayern Munich the other possibilities. Given the strength of their potential opponents at the first knockout stage, the Gunners may come to rue back-to-back away defeats in the group stage following a blistering start to the campaign.
Not that the players share this attitude. Robin van Persie, who opened the scoring on Wednesday, spoke of his desire to see Arsenal face one of the Spanish giants in the last-16: “Who
Rather than speculating about possibilities, the manager has one eye on Monday’s clash against United, an accusation that could be levelled at his players judging by Wednesday night’s lethargic attacking display. This did not escape the manager’s attention, although he was quick to give credit to a largely resolute Serbian back four: “We didn’t find our pace in the game. We didn’t manage to find openings in their defence and they defended very well.” Perhaps to blame for a lack of fluidity was the unfamiliar striking partnership of van Persie and Marouane Chamakh. The Dutchman occupied a role withdrawn from the main striker, in a similar vein to that of Dennis Bergkamp, whose number 10 he inherited this season. It had widely been believed that RvP’s return to action would create a selection dilemma for Wenger, but rather than facing a selection headache, the manager feels it will afford him greater flexibility: “We can play Chamakh and Van Persie together. We can play Chamakh up front and van Persie behind… What is interesting is we can play all kinds of formations with the two.”
As a self-confessed fan of beautiful football, Arsenal’s No 10 will hope to occupy a role befitting of his number and take up the mantle as playmaker from Cesc Fabregas particularly as the Spaniard’s Old Trafford involvement remains in doubt.