Following Arsenal’s dramatic Champions League first leg tie against Barcelona, manager Arsene Wenger said the win would ensure his side travel to the Camp Nou with the belief they can progress to the quarter-finals; something the Frenchman felt was lacking in last season’s encounter. Whether Arsenal really have enough to progress against a team their midfielder Jack Wilshire called “the
Having got themselves back into the game through Robin van Persie’s crisp strike, Arsenal not only showed the confidence they could win the game, they also exhibited the nous to exploit the weaknesses in Pep Guardiola’s side. Weakness is not something usually associated with this Barca team, but it is certainly there. In imposing their own technique and style on any game they play, home or away, Barca pressurise high up the pitch. This encourages attacking full-backs Dani Alves and Maxwell to join in the play at every opportunity, often leaving their team exposed at the back and vulnerable to pace. This is exactly how Wenger’s side was able to grab the winner on Wednesday night and also claw themselves back into the game in last season’s encounter. With the pace Arsenal have in attack, this is certainly a tactic they must exploit if they are to progress.
The problem, however, is getting enough of a foothold in the game to use the ball and break into these areas. This is where the influence of both Cesc Fabregas and Wilshire will come into play. Fabregas will certainly have to improve on his subdued performance whereas this will be the biggest test of Wilshire’s fledgling career. The 19-year-old looked at home against his illustrious counterparts at the Emirates, but on Barca’s home patch his time on the ball will be severely limited. He must make the most of what possession he has.
Wenger, his players, and fans alike will certainly be delighted with a result that Liam Brady described as “one of the greatest nights in Arsenal’s history,” but it should also be taken in context. Since Guardiola took over the reins of the Spanish giants in 2008, they have yet to win away in the knock out phase of the Champions League. Looking at last season’s defeat at the semi-final stage to Inter Milan all the focus has been on the encounter in Spain, with little mention of the match in Milan. For example, when speaking to the Guardian last week Xavi said: “Last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win”. This may have been the case in the second leg, but at the San Siro Inter were far superior running out 3-1 winners.
There is no doubting the fantastic nature of Arsenal’s comeback given the way Barca played, but Guardiola’s away record has to be taken into consideration. Despite having a winning mentality drilled into them following huge success and countless plaudits, this failure to win away must have been playing on the minds of the Barca players as they struggled to close out the game.
The final result may give Wenger’s men confidence they can progress in the competition, but the mentality of the Barca side will be vastly different at home. If the Gunners can come away with a result from the second leg there is no doubt it will rank among one of the best in their history, but for now it may be a little early for those kinds of plaudits.