Champions league draw: Barca test 'difficult but possible' -- Wenger
Arsenal v Barcelona
Published 18/12/2010 | 05:00
THERE had been much "Bring on Barcelona" bravado from Arsenal's players in the build-up to yesterday's Champions League draw, but by the time that assignment was confirmed it must have begun to appear daunting rather than inspiring.
Looking for their first trophy since 2005, Arsenal could not have been given a more searching examination in the Champions League round of 16. Barcelona produced a masterclass at the Emirates Stadium in the quarter-final last season; they were not flattered by a scoreline of 2-2 in the first leg after Arsenal pulled two goals back in the closing stages, and went on to pulverise Arsene Wenger's team 4-1 in the second leg, Lionel Messi scoring all four.
Arsenal might feel that they are a better side this season -- the evidence is far from conclusive -- but the terrifying thing for them and the rest of Europe is that Barcelona appear to be scaling new heights.
With Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta at the peak of their powers, with Gerard Pique, Daniel Alves and Pedro Rodriguez getting better all the time, with Messi performing more miracles every week and with David Villa bringing even greater penetration to the attack, the astounding 5-0 victory over Real Madrid last month left many commentators running out of superlatives to describe them.
"My reaction is simple -- difficult but possible," Wenger said on hearing the news yesterday. "You could have said that Schalke, a team with less history in the Champions League, would maybe have been easier, but the advantage is that we will be on our toes and we'll be ready. Barcelona are certainly the favourites but, on their side, they did not want us, either, because they know they will get a game."
The good news for Wenger is that Thomas Vermaelen, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie -- none of whom has played much part in this campaign and none of whom figured in the away leg last season -- should be fit by February.
An interesting subplot will be the involvement of Fabregas against the club he yearned to join in the summer when they had a £29m offer for him rejected. Even if the expectation was that Barcelona would renew their interest at the end of the season, it is hard to see where he would fit into their team. They are that good.
Marseille v Man United
RIO Ferdinand has warned his Manchester United team-mates that they will have to "earn their pennies" if the club are to overcome Marseille and reach the Champions League quarter-finals for the fifth successive season.
Marseille are only fifth in Ligue 1, but the memory of a shock 1-0 defeat to Lille in Paris in the Champions League group stage in November 2005 will ensure United are focused.
"This is the knockout stage and where you earn your pennies," said Ferdinand. "It is not a league situation. There is no chance to make up ground. We have to be right on the day."
There will also be a chance for United to renew acquaintances with Gabriel Heinze, the Argentina defender whose relationship with Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford soured -- he was refused a move to Liverpool in 2007, but joined Real Madrid a month later.
If any bad blood remains, Ferguson did not let on yesterday. "They've got one of our old players in Heinze so it'll be nice to see him," the manager said. "Marseille are a handful at their own ground. It'll be a difficult tie."
Copenhagen v Chelsea
CARLO Ancelotti confirmed the worst-kept secret in the game yesterday when he revealed that winning the Champions League is Chelsea's priority this season, but owner Roman Abramovich could have divided loyalties when the Blues face Copenhagen.
Abramovich's eldest son, Arkady, held talks with the Danish club's owners this month about buying a 30pc stake and there is a slim possibility that he could welcome his father to the Parken Stadium.
Anyone doubting the extent of Abramovich's obsession should consider the fallout from last season's round-of-16 exit to Inter Milan.
A dressing-room dispute between club director Eugene Tenenbaum and Ray Wilkins after the second leg was instrumental in the assistant coach's dismissal, and in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, Abramovich took a snap decision to punish the club's out-of-contract players for his embarrassment at the hands of Jose Mourinho, which led to the departures of Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Juliano Belletti and Deco.
AC Milan v Tottenham
TOTTENHAM'S return to the San Siro will feel far less daunting after their match at the stadium two months ago. Gareth Bale's second-half hat-trick, after his team had been reduced to 10 men and trailed by four goals to Inter Milan in a Champions League group game, was a defining moment for many Tottenham players.
It delivered belief that they could compete with the best teams in Europe and has changed the course of their campaign.
Spurs beat the European champions 3-1 in the return match, but AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri didn't seem overly worried after the sides were drawn together in the round of 16.
"Tottenham are probably a very good team but among the possible rivals we could have faced, they are in theory one of the less difficult sides," Allegri said. "Tottenham are excellent and they deserve respect."
Allegri has led Milan to the top of Serie A at Christmas for the first time in eight years. On each of the previous 16 occasions they have performed that feat they have gone on to win the title.