Arsenal are facing a tough test against Barcelona in the first knockout round of the Champions League, as they have continued to suffer the consequences of failing to win the group. Barcelona are the holders and have what many consider being the best front three in recent European history with Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. There was an argument that all three could have won the Ballon D’Or last year, with the latter winning it and Neymar finishing in third. Luis Suarez is plagued by his poor reputation when it comes to such awards, but regular watchers of Barcelona will testify that he has been as important as Messi over the last 12 months. Arsenal could beat Barcelona, who are unbeaten in 32 matches in all competitions, but it will be tough. Arsenal certainly got the toughest draw from the remaining sides in the Champions League.
Gabriel is a doubt for this match, so Per Mertesacker is likely to partner Laurent Koscielny in this match. This is worrying for Arsenal fans as Mertesacker is infamously slow, and will be targeted by the Barcelona front three, who have an incredible 91 goals between them so far this season. Another option for Arsene Wenger is Calum Chambers and he may opt for the former Southampton defender as he has looked good in recent weeks. I would opt for Chambers and Koscielny as both have the pace to allow Arsenal to play a slightly higher line.
The full-backs have been regulars for Arsenal this season and Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have both had good years. They have a good balance between attack and defence, but they need to be more cautious against Barcelona as the Spanish club transition from defence to attack quickly. Arsene Wenger will have watched a lot of this Barcelona side and will know that trying to experiment with the back-line is suicidal. Pep Guardiola played three at the back against MSN, trying to man mark each player, but this plan was ultimately flawed and Bayern were easily beaten on the night.
Arsenal have a dilemma in the midfield as they have to decide whether to keep with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, or try to match Barcelona and play three in the centre of midfield. Francis Coquelin needs to start as he provides the defence with a shield and is a superb tackler of the ball. Arsenal struggled when the Frenchman was missing and he is crucial if Arsenal are to have any chance of beating Barcelona. Aaron Ramsey is also expected to start as he is a box-to-box midfielder, and his energy could hinder Barcelona’s passing play. Mathieu Flamini could also start in a midfield three, but Arsenal can’t be too defensive as they need to try score at the other end, especially at home.
Moving onto the attacking players, if they opt for a 4-2-3-1, Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez should start. All three have a lot of attacking talent and will cause the Barcelona defence trouble. Barcelona have only kept two clean sheets in their last ten games, which shows they can struggle at the back. Arsenal have some excellent players, and shouldn’t be too overawed by the quality Barcelona possess. Wenger needs to set his side up to be dangerous on the break and this is why I think Walcott should start. He has the pace to get in behind and he is a good finisher when chances come his way. Also if he starts Ozil in the number ten role, the German needs to work back defensively and try to prevent Sergio Busquets from dictating the play from deep. Busquets is central to Barcelona and man-marking him could be important.
Olivier Giroud should be leading the line as Arsenal need a player capable of winning the ball in the air as Barcelona can be poor at defending set pieces. Also they will need somebody to hold the ball up and bring the attacking midfielders into play. Arsenal are most dangerous when Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez receive the ball in the final third, and Giroud has the quality to bring them into the game.
Do Arsenal have a chance?
Yes, especially at The Emirates. Barcelona are an extraordinary team who have three of the best attackers in world football, but they are beatable. People are overlooking the quality Arsenal have in the final third themselves, and if the likes of Las Palmas and Sporting Gijon can score against Barcelona, then Arsenal can score more than one. Gerard Pique was rested at the weekend, and he is an excellent defender, but Javier Mascherano is somebody who could be exploited, especially aerially. Giroud will have the beating of him all day long. Also Barcelona’s full backs like to bomb forward, so if Arsenal can consistently win the ball back, they have the chance to use the pace of Sanchez and Walcott to break up the wings. The holders of the Champions League also lack a quality goalkeeper.
The front three are a scary thought for the Arsenal back four, but they need to think positively about this match and focus on scoring at the other end. It’s unlikely that they will keep a clean sheet, but they could outscore Barcelona. They need to win at home to give them any chance of qualifying, but Arsenal have beaten Bayern Munich on a couple of occasions in recent years. They also have their best team for a decade, and in the likes of Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, they have players used to winning big competitions. Arsenal shouldn’t be scared and with the lack of pressure on them, there is an opportunity to cause a shock. They can’t be overly defensive, but they can’t go gung ho. If they find a balance, they have a realistic chance of beating Barcelona.