Ask any follower of Premier League football who the most attractive team in the English game is and Arsenal will never be far from the top of the list. Ask any follower of the global game who the most attractive team in the world is and Barcelona will probably be at the very top.
That is the problem Arsenal face in tomorrow’s mouth-watering last-16 clash at the Emirates – a team that is simply better at the Gunners’ own game. Defences up and down both England and Spain fear for their dignity when faced with the wealth of attacking talent and guile for possession football both Arsenal and Barcelona enjoy, but while Arsene Wenger’s troops are openly exclaiming their fearlessness, it must surely be they who are more worried about the outcome of both legs.
Although Arsenal, at times, showed opposing defences little mercy during the group stages, hitting 18 goals in six games – the joint-highest in fact, along with north London rivals Tottenham – and smashing FC Braga and Shakhtar Donetsk for 11 goals in the first two home fixtures, they were found wanting on a couple of occasions, with limp away reverses to the same two sides. The fact that the Gunners can be opened up when lacking key personnel will please Wednesday’s visitors, but the real battle will be won by whichever side imposes their high possession, high movement style on the game more than their opponents.
While Barca hit four fewer goals than Arsenal in what was a very easy group on paper, they also conceded four fewer and went undefeated, which suggests that the Spaniards were doing the majority of the pressing throughout their group fixtures, whereas Arsenal had the tendency to lapse. When allowed to play their natural game, as they were in both the 6-0 drubbing of Shakhtar and the 5-1 win against Braga, Wenger’s troops are simply unstoppable, however them being allowed to play is something Barcelona simply will not let happen.
As Xavi discussed in his recent Guardian interview, he and his teammates do not invite pressure, they take control, they press and they pass, and they will be doing all they can to ensure this philosophy continues even against teams with the potential to hurt them, as Arsenal undoubtedly do. And while the diminutive midfielder respects the way the Gunners play, the emphasis will remain on the Londoners to stop Barcelona playing before they can think about attacking themselves, rather than the other way around.
The Spanish champions do have the occasional off day, but rarely have two in quick succession. Should Xavi, Lionel Messi, David Villa et al not hit their rhythm tomorrow night, whether that be through Arsenal’s football or their own undoing, the Gunners will need to take maximum advantage and take a lead back to the Nou Camp and continue to play football, as recent weeks have shown how frail their defence can be.
One thing is not in doubt – there will be goals from either side. Scoring a lot of goals is simply the only way to beat Barcelona, and this Arsenal side, with an in-form Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri possibly returning, have as good a chance as anyone in Europe. But as good a chance as anyone does not necessarily equate to a good chance.