Before today’s match and in the aftermath of the Gunners FA Cup exit at the hands of Watford, under fire Arsenal Boss Arsene Wenger stated that he wanted his team to ‘make the impossible possible’ at the Camp Nou in this Champions League Last 16 2nd Leg.
To summarise, Arsenal lost the first leg at home 2-0, and face the European Cup holders who are in sumptuous form – conceding just two, and scoring nineteen in their last five fixtures – winning them all.
Arsenal go into this game in the worst run of form for years, just three wins in the last eleven fixtures and producing some displays which have been the polar opposite of the swashbuckling football which the Arsenal name is synonymous with.
Gooners have had an awful time of late, and have seen the familiar failings which have haunted recent times – slumps in form just as the home straight comes into view, naive defending and some insipid midfield play that has seen us hand wins to teams which should have no right to challenge for points.
Arsene Wenger and the blind faith in his squad is now infuriating rather than endearing – especially as it is these players that have produced performances which have left the Gunners on their knees. Whilst it would go against Wenger’s grain to call out players for ineptitude, he would have plenty to choose should he opt for a tongue lashing.
This game, coupled with a low level of optimism amongst the Gooner faithful, sees opinion swing toward resting our power players for what some see as the most prominent fixture – Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday. The Premier League title seems as far away as ever now that leaders Leicester City are now eleven points ahead – albeit having played a game more – but with confidence on the floor, who is to say that Arsenal will capitalise on the extra game and claw back three points?
All the same, the ever present risk of injury means that some form of contingency plan may be put in place by Wenger with Saturday in mind. With opponents Barca in irresistible form – eleven goals scored in their last three games – if the Catalans score early and if the already slim prospects of qualification slip away, then the likes of Ozil and Sanchez may just be hooked early.
The likes of Krystian Bielik and several other youth team players trained with the Arsenal team on the eve of this clash, and the bench may take on a young appearance – what a place these youngsters may make their debut in! The chance of them starting the game will be slim, but even the last ten minutes would be an experience they will want to replicate.
Laurent Koscielny has recovered from a calf problem and may return in the place of the increasingly rash Gabriel. The Brazilian facing off against the man who destroyed Arsenal in the first leg – the worlds best player Lionel Messi – is a thought to fill any Gooner with chills.
Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech again miss out and will be sorely missed, but Mohamed Elneny has been showing promising signs despite the awful results, and Francis Coquelin will provide the bite in midfield.
The positions with the most debate will be in the striker slot. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott ended their prospective droughts in last weeks win over Hull City, but the fact remains that since his return from injury – Danny Welbeck has been Arsenal’s brightest player. The England man must start either this match or the game versus the Toffees and his added clinical finishing allied with his effervescent running mean he will cause defenders headaches if given the opportunity.
Gerard Pique is suspended for Barca, but Luis Suarez will return for this fixture – reuniting Europe’s most feared triumvirate in Neymar Jr, Messi and Suarez himself.
What is clear is that Arsenal are facing near insurmountable odds. If we overlook the romantic dreams that we all have of a famous victory, then ending Barca’s 37 match unbeaten run is unlikely. Even more so by two clear goals. Anything is possible, but the football that has been played by Arsene Wenger’s men recently lends itself to more pessimistic thoughts.
Some rays of optimism still struggle through the murkiness though. What is constantly being overlooked as the media gleefully await another Arsenal defeat is the wonderful and dedicated display Arsenal put in for seventy minutes in the first leg. The history books will show a simple 2-0 victory for the Catalans, but for the majority of the game, Arsenal created the best opportunities and kept Barca at arms length.
Arsenal have exited the Last 16 stage in the Champions League for the last five seasons but in those exits – if you conveniently forget some dire first leg results – have produced some memorable victories over the heavyweights of European football and against odds stacked against them.
With Barcelona unbeaten in the Champions League this season and with Messi, Suarez and Neymar Jr bearing their teeth at the prospect of another goal feast, Arsenal will once more need to summon the spirit of past heroes if they are to retain hope. A first win at the Camp Nou for the Gunners could just spark the teams engines into life.