Mission Improbable is now upon Arsenal as holders Barcelona visit The Emirates in the first knockout round of the Champions League.
Arsene Wenger is now tasked with keeping quiet the most potent strike force in European football – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar Jr.
Whilst the undeniable favourites for the tie are the Catalan side, the Gunners do have some things to grasp hold of in the search of hope. Luis Enrique’s side travelled a fair distance for their weekend game against Las Palmas, and added to the flight to London – have spent a fair amount of time in the air in the runup to this fixture. What is irrefutable is that the North Londoners must be at least on level pegging for the second leg at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona boast an enviable record – they are unbeaten in thirty two matches. Their potent attack may take the headlines prior to the first whistle, but the return of Gerard Pique after being rested and Sergio Busquets from suspension will be equally as vital to the Catalan side.
Arsene Wenger made reference to his team being mindful of the last few European exits, with a woeful first leg making progress more difficult. Last years painful performance against Monaco especially shows the importance of a good start. What will be integral to this is a united front in the face of an attacking whirlwind.
Petr Cech will return to the side after being rested for the FA Cup tie against Hull City, as will Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. Whether Theo Walcott will retain his place or be an excellent option from the bench is up for discussion. His display against the Tigers was one of the rare causes for optimism during the game and his pace will be an outlet when Barcelona inevitably dominate possession.
Another player that may be recalled is Alexis Sanchez. Whilst his form is stuttering after returning from injury, the Chilean will be more than motivated to regain his goalscoring touch against his former side. Sanchez will have a point to prove.
Francis Coquelin should also return to the side and he will pit his wits against Busquets, Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic. The Frenchman will have to be at his bristling best to silence the threat and Welshman Aaron Ramsey will need to retain his positional discipline in the centre. Not only this, but his lung-bursting runs from box to box will require excellent timing.
Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky in midfield and Gabriel in defence will again miss out, but Arsenal’s squad is strong, and it will need to be, with a trip to Old Trafford in the weekend. The bench will be of equal importance to the first eleven, and the return of Danny Welbeck is huge. He started his first game since returning from a lengthy injury and will most likely be on the bench for this tie.
The defensive partnership of Koscielny and Mertesacker will face off against Messi and co – and they will need to pull out all the stops. The French-Deutsch combo have the ability to clean up shop but will be pushed to their limits with Messi, Suarez and Neymar Jr scoring 91 goals this season combined – so far.
So, with the last four Champions League exits being thanks to a poor First Leg, and with a visiting strike force nullifying all who they come across, Arsenal have it all to do. With an all important return to Premiership action on Sunday away to Manchester United, one thing is for sure – Arsene Wenger had best brush up on his juggling skills. Time for another famous European night at The Emirates – a 2-1 win perhaps? Where is Arshavin when you need him?