With one foot in the quarter-finals, FC Barcelona will be looking to finish the job tomorrow when they take on English Premier League title hopefuls Arsenal FC at the Camp Nou. With a 2-0 aggregate lead to their advantage, the Blaugrana merely need to avoid catastrophe tomorrow evening to secure progression from the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 for the ninth successive season. The visitors are somewhat out of form, while of course the hosts are on an unbeaten streak of record-breaking proportions, so the tie is over, right?
Whether the contest is over or not, Luis Enrique has clearly been preaching the importance of focus, as a litany of Barca stars have come out prior to this match to reiterate that anything can happen in football. For them, the tie will start tomorrow at 0-0 with the first whistle, and anything less than a victory on the night will not be tolerated and seen as failure – an approach that has served us well in the Enrique era.
Every single two-legged knockout tie that we have contested in the Champions League and Copa del Rey has been won by a two goal margin at the very least, a run that seems set to continue with the Gunners. That’s testament to Enrique’s motivational skills and his man-management as he continues to eek the very best out of his squad time after time, game after game. So often in years gone by, our dearest enemy has been complacency, but I’m not even sure that this "c word" forms part of Lucho’s vocabulary.
And the scary part is, we just keep getting better. This unbeaten streak has been nothing short of jaw-dropping, but in truth it started somewhat slowly. Draws weren’t common, but they at least existed – whereas now the Blaugrana have won 18 matches of their last 19 – the only exception being that 1-1 draw with Valencia in the Copa del Rey after we annihilated them 7-0 in the first-leg.
Just for context, Arsenal are one of the best teams in the world and they’ve only won eight of their last 19.
Quite where we go from here is unknown, certainly retaining the treble looks more plausible than it ever has, perhaps for any club in the history of the Champions League-era. But what if we manage that? At this point, I’d probably bet on us for the next Superbowl too; we’re witnessing something historic, and I feel privileged that we’ll get a chance to experience and continue living and breathing this run tomorrow.
Ordinarily, the prospect of missing Gerard Pique for a match of this magnitude through suspension would give me sleepless nights and cause me to break out in cold sweats, but not so tonight. With progression all but assured, I’m confident that we can overcome the absence of our most crucial defender, and I’m even slightly happy that he gets a chance to rest ahead of a difficult trip to El Madrigal this coming weekend.
Leaving Pique’s suspension aside, there’s nothing else for Luis Enrique to contend with – the only issues he has are positive: like whether he should continue with the in-form Arda Turan who is fast finding his feet, or whether he reverts back to the Champions League-winning pairing of Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic.
While squad depth has been a concern for other iterations of recent Barcelona teams, this is perhaps the strongest we’ve ever seen our entire side – so much so that there’s barely a wrong decision that Enrique could (realistically) make. Assuming that Jordi Alba starts at left-back of course.
Let’s be honest though, that’s it. No-one is going to really react strongly to seeing either Aleix Vidal or Dani Alves at right-back, nor will they fret about the prospect of Marc Bartra, Jeremy Mathieu or Thomas Vermaelen partnering Javier Mascherano. Sergi Roberto could literally start anywhere and I’d back him to shine. That’s the point that we’ve gotten to – where the very composition of our squad, and the management of such a diverse group of players – and more importantly, individuals – is so spot on that Enrique can do no wrong.
I could suggest just about any combination of players, and Enrique could probably make it work – but tomorrow’s not the time for experimentation, so it’d be prudent to suggest that Lucho will stick with his usual winning formula.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal after a superb performance at the Emirates in the first-leg, and while he had few shaky moments at the start of the season, the German shot-stopper has been back to his very best in recent appearances. As Luis pointed out, we don’t concede en masse all too often, so the odds are very much in our favour.
Dani Alves gave a splendid interview to The Guardian earlier this week (please read it if you haven’t already), so it’d be a shame not to see him start in this one – and we covered the Pique suspension earlier in the week in case you’re wondering who might start in his place. Jordi Alba completes the backline and somehow, things will get better from thereon in.
Sergio Busquets also deserves a paean of praise, which we’ll likely save for another day – but it struck me last night when considering his role in this team that he’d probably be upheld as the gold standard by a coach in another sport, a certain Bill Belichick. Admittedly there isn’t much crossover, and most of the New England Patriots roster would appear confused by such a claim, but those who understand will know what I’m talking about.
"Do your job"
Isn’t that Busquets down to a tee? I mean there’s probably no-one else who has ever been as good as doing his job as Busquets is in this team. It facilitates so much, and liberates the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Arda Turan, Sergi Roberto or whoever it might be to perform to their best in their roles too. Speaking of which, I suspect that the starting place will fall to either Sergi Roberto or Rakitic, with a slight edge going to the Croatian.
After all the other spot is reserved for Andres Iniesta. I got the chance to write a few things about Iniesta last night, take some time to have a read if you can, and then enjoy the chance to watch him in his element tomorrow. We often see the best of Iniesta in matches like this, and it’s such a large part of why we’ve been so successful in the past decade.
Then we get to the attack, who are quite good as well I suppose. Consider this: Luis Suarez has scored over 40 goals this season, and he’s not even the player that Arsenal should be most terrified of. That’s Lionel Messi, the same guy who put them to the sword with a brace at the Emirates, and the same guy who’s scored approximately a million goals since his return from injury. Or something like that anyway; which means that Neymar, the third best player in the world by the last poll, is an afterthought.
This team is just inhuman.
Where to begin? Well the best thing I can do is point you in the direction of the handy list that Renato compiled which summarises all of Arsenal’s injury woes. It doesn’t make for fun reading if you’re an Arsenal fan, but if you are, you took a wrong turn at Albuquerque anyway. The main question surrounding Arsenal’s team selection tomorrow has been and will be their attack.
Will they opt for some pace in the shape of Danny Welbeck, even though he had a bit of a shocker in the FA Cup this past weekend against Watford? Do they opt for their usual Barcelona destroyer, Theo Walcott, or maybe stick with the status quo that is Olivier Giroud. With a two goal lead, should we even care?
Arsenal FC 0-2 FC Barcelona – 23rd February 2016 – UEFA Champions League
The hosts put up a valiant fight and really gave their visitors a few scares, until Lionel Messi took over that is.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Bellerin, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Monreal; Coquelin, Elneny; Sanchez, Ozil, Welbeck; Giroud
I should caveat that Arsenal’s only win in their last six matches came against lower league opposition. It’s the Champions League so it’s going to be a tough match, but we’ll end up coasting it again. 3-1 this time.