Saturday 25 November 2017

Beating Barcelona would be best result for Arsenal since Invincibles era

Round of 16 pits 2006 finalists against one another and leaves Arsene Wenger with stiffest task imaginable

Old foes: Lionel Messi takes on Laurent Koscielny the last time Arsenal met Barcelona, in 2011
Old foes: Lionel Messi takes on Laurent Koscielny the last time Arsenal met Barcelona, in 2011

Sam Wallace

It will be 10 years next summer that Arsenal lost to Barcelona in the single Champions League final in their history, and from which point the two club’s fortunes diverged – a story that bears retelling after they were drawn to play each other again in the Champions League last 16 in February.

Barcelona have won three Champions League titles in the interim, and have – in spite of some stiff competition – become the club of the era in these golden days of European football.

In that time, they have twice bought Arsenal’s captain and best player – Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas - and they have twice eliminated the London club from the competition, in the quarter-finals of 2010 and in the first knockout round the following year.

When Wenger’s team face the defending champions in February, for the for the first time in the competition since 2011, it is no exaggeration to say that if Arsenal were to win the tie it would be the most significant result for the club since the Invincibles season of 2003-2004.

Barcelona are the standard for all Europe’s great clubs, even for an individual as stubbornly single-minded as Wenger, and beating the greatest attacking team on the planet would be the kind of achievement that many believe is well beyond him now.

Top of La Liga and with Lionel Messi back in the side it does not look good for Arsenal but then that would be the same for any side facing Barcelona. The new Champions League rules that mean only reigning champions are seeded have militated against Arsenal. They were always unlikely to take top spot above Bayern Munich in Group F, which meant there was always potential for them to meet one of the big guns in the second round.

Arsenal have not made it past the round of 16 for the previous five years, with elimination at the hands of Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, twice, and Monaco during that period. They will feel the draw has gone against them again, with Wolfsburg, conquerors of Manchester United, their preferred opponent. The Germans have drawn surprise package Gent, from Belgium.

Manchester City have been drawn Dynamo Kiev, who came second in Chelsea’s group. Chelsea have drawn Paris Saint-Germain for the third successive year, a very difficult tie against the club whose draw at Stamford Bridge with 10 men for most of the game last season was a foretaste of the problems that have beset Jose Mourinho this season.

There will also be increased sensitivity around the behaviour of Chelsea fans in Paris in light of the Metro incident last season when a black man, Souleymane S, was pushed off a carriage by Chelsea supporters and racist chanting was captured on mobile phone footage.

It is City who will be the most hopeful of reaching the final eight, for the first time in their history. Chelsea’s form in the Champions League has been stronger than their domestic performances and Mourinho’s longevity in the job will surely rest on how they do in this competition.

But the big game is, once again, Arsenal against Barcelona, and that old story of how Arsenal beat a club who have long had the upper hand over them, on and off the pitch.

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