Arsenal v Barcelona Preview: Beautiful Football Lovefest?

When I wrote about my Blaugrana experience in January, I couldn’t possibly have predicted what the Champions League draw would throw up. Last Friday, the quarterfinal draw pitted Barcelona against Arsenal, with the first leg to be played on the 31st of March at the Emirates Stadium and the return leg at Camp Nou, on the 6th of April.

The words ‘mouth-watering prospect’ do not do the fixture enough justice. Much has been written about Barca’s delightful, easy on the eye football which made sure they did a clean sweep of all the 5 trophies on offer in the 2008-09 season. But an equal amount has been written about Le Prof’s Gunners and their elegant, mesmerising passing game. The only difference is that Arsenal have not won a major trophy since they beat Manchester United on penalties in 2005 to lift the FA Cup. All of which could change this season as they are very much in the title race, despite being written off twice. The only thing they need to do is concentrate on doing a ‘magnificent seven’ in the remaining games, and then hope to God that rivals Manchester United and Chelsea drop points. But that is another matter. Come 31st of March, all eyes will be focused on Arsene Wenger’s boys as they attempt to topple Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions, who have been said to showcase the ‘finished model of Wenger’s footballing philosophy.’

Beautiful, exciting and eye-catching football aside, these two fixtures will also have more than their share of sentimental value. Thierry Henry, Arsenal’s talisman for the better part of his top-flight career and still the club’s reigning highest-ever scorer will make an emotional return to the club and the fans that made him a world-class star. When he left for the La Liga, he had said that playing against Arsenal would be his worst nightmare. And now in a cruel twist of fate, he has to face something he had happily avoided since 2007. In a recent interview, Titi revealed that he is trying to avoid thinking of the matches, especially the one in north London as ‘it would be “too weird for him to step on the pitch, even if it’s at the Emirates and not Highbury, with another shirt on.” He went on to say that the bond he has shared for eight years and still shares with the Arsenal fans is something he will not get anywhere else … and that people should “forget about him even thinking of celebrating if he scores. Simple as that.” One thing is indisputable whatever happens on the pitch that evening – the still loved and revered Henry will get a rousing reception from the Gooners.

The footballing world cannot be more excited that two of the world’s most attractive sides to watch will play each other for the first time since 2006. One doesn’t need to be an Arsenal fan to know the impact or effect of the rather harmless words – 2006, Stadt de France, Champions League final. The Gunners, (reduced to ten men after Jens Lehmann had been sent off for a foul on Samuel Eto’o) were 15 minutes away from lifting that coveted trophy for the first time in the history of the club. But their brave fight was to be left unrewarded as late goals from Eto’o and Juliano Belleti ensured a 2-1 victory for Barcelona. (and then manager, Frank Rijkaard) It was an emotional evening, and captain Henry had vowed to stay with the team and fight for another day. But it was not to be.

Then of course, there is the man who missed out on playing in that 2006 final due to a hamstring injury. Lionel Messi. The little Argentine wizard has accelerated his prowess and form to an unbelievable extent this past week. A truely dazzling seven days where he just reminded the world of his ability to find that impossible 5th or the 6th gear at sheer will. This includes a brace in their 4-0 demolition of Stuttgart in the Champions League, and two consecutive La Liga hat-tricks against Valencia and Real Zaragoza. He was also responsible for Barcelona being awarded the penalty in that 4-0 win as he left the defenders no choice but to foul him, with one of the most incredible dribbles you are ever likely to witness in your life as a football fan.

For those of you interested in statistics, Messi has scored 8 goals in the last 4 games and 11 in his last 6 games. This has brought his season’s tally to 34 goals from 34 starts (including 4 substitute appearances) with 9 assists to add to that. Now compare that to Rooney and you will see just how mind-boggling they are. Wayne Rooney has been having the form of his life, scoring goals at will, assisting goals, even helping the team defensively and generally being seemingly impossible to stop and get the ball from. Yet, his stats read: 33 goals from 37 games with 2 substitute appearances and 5 assists.

While, I am in no way disparaging Rooney (he is after all, one of the players I admire from my rival team), it is worth noting that Messi seems to be able to step up his game above everyone else, when it is seemingly impossible, and he does it with style, flair and a remarkable ease, making a point to get through as many defenders as he can. (The sheer delight which I have witnessed first-hand when I saw him play and score a brace against Sevilla in January) Combine all of this with his pleasant and very professional attititude on and off the pitch, and he is well on his way to being named as the greatest ever player. And he is only 22 so it is an honour for football lovers all over to be able to witness him grow and excel even more.

However it will also be his connection with a certain Francesc Fabregas that will be talked about. There is an inescapable link between Fabregas and Barcelona FC, who in spite of Wenger’s official warning, seem to be clearly bent on the ‘return of the prodigal son.’ Cesc was just 16 years of age when he signed for Arsenal. But he started his football career with an extremely successful Barcelona youth team that comprised of not only Lionel Messi, but also a certain Gerard Pique, who after three years at Manchester United has come back ‘home’ and is now a highly integral part of the Barca first-team. Barcelona’s attempts to lure the young Spaniard back to Camp Nou with talks of his ‘Barca DNA’ et al, have been well-documented – though we will never know how much is fact and how much fabricated by the press. To his credit though, Fabregas has been steadfastly refuting these rumours and has probably had to prove his loyalty to the Gunners more time than he has scored this season. (Keep in mind he is the club’s top scorer). There is no doubt about Fabregas’ ability to lead Arsenal and inspire them, but it will be definitely a match high in emotions for the young Arsenal captain, especially the second leg in Barcelona. And what if he scores? (As an Arsenal fan, I’m hoping he will!) It will be against some of his countrymen, in front of one of his idols, whose jersey number he shares and proudly wears for Arsenal – the number 4 shirt Pep Guardiola donned when he was a Barca player

Some final thoughts: It is definitely one of the most anticipated prospects of the footballing season. I mean, you cannot get better than Barcelona versus Arsenal (more so from a neutral’s perspective). Arsenal are going to be the underdogs but they should remember that the last time they faced the men in red and blue, they fought bravely and have nothing to be ashamed of. It will all be a question of whether Messi can be kept quiet by the likes of Gael Clichy and Alexandre Song, of whether their midfield maestro duo can be stopped from dictating their way through (Though there is still some doubt about whether Xavi can play) and of how Arsenal come out and play against the considerable might of Barcelona. If both teams play their fluent game, there is a chance of quite a few goals, considering both back-lines are not as formidable as each team would like. (Though I’d say experience makes Barca the stronger team in defence compared to Arsenal)

As a Gooner Girl, it will be weird to see Henry in a different shirt (In spite of having a taste of that in my Camp Nou visit, the opponents were Sevilla, not Arsenal!) and Barca being the team I would support as first choice if not for the Gunners, there is a case to be made for conflicting emotions. At the end of the day however, I will be hoping against hope for an Arsenal victory.

PS: This was written before Arsenal’s frustrating 1-1 at St. Andrews by letting Birmingham score in the last minute of stoppage time. How much of this will impact the game on Wednesday, especially with Fabregas picking up a knock on his knee and his fitness in doubt? Only time will tell.

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