whenever Arsenal have faced Barcelona in recent years, there has always been a thorny issue which comes between the two sides and ruins what might otherwise descend into a mutual appreciation society -- the issue of Cesc Fabregas, his past and his future.
Fabregas was always destined to be a Barcelona fan from the moment he attended his first game at the Nou Camp as a baby of just nine months old with his grandfather. He spent six years at the Barcelona academy, playing in the same team as Lionel Messi, before Arsene Wenger pulled off a surprising coup by signing him for Arsenal in September 2003 for nothing.
Barca have wanted him back ever since. Last summer they made their most concerted attempt yet, but Arsenal rejected two bids despite the player's initial request that he be allowed to leave, before he was talked into staying by Wenger.
The tug of love will no doubt be resumed again this summer, and it remains the major sore point between the two clubs. Wenger addressed it head on yesterday, saying it is time Barca stopped griping about how Fabregas was lured away from them.
"It's part of the game. Where do they get their players? Where does Messi come from? Barcelona? At what age did they take him? Twelve years old. There's no reason for any bitterness because we did nothing illegal," Wenger said.
"We did not force a gun somewhere. We respected the rules. They could come and take our players, we accept that. They take their players from all over the world. Don't expect them only to get players from Catalonia."
Wenger was in a spiky mood, and hopes his team show similar brio when the teams meet in the first leg of their Champions League tie. When pushed, he did acknowledge that tonight's visitors to the Emirates are "the best club team I've ever faced" and he described them as "super favourites" to win the Champions League this season.
But he played down the problems of facing the team generally judged to be the best on the planet by some distance.
Instead, he took the opportunity to build up Arsenal as a team capable of beating Barcelona, one that has matured since they lost 6-3 over two legs in last season's quarter-finals.
Wenger's evidence that his side are stronger now than they were 11 months ago was compelling: their injuries are fewer, while the likes of Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou and Jack Wilshere have developed in the intervening period.
Wenger said: "We are in an ideal condition to face them. We cannot complain, we have the belief, the confidence, the players available. That was not the case last year."
Rather than fearing a possible repeat of the mauling Arsenal received last season, in particular when they went down 4-1 in the second leg at the Nou Camp, Wenger said the tie provided his team with an opportunity to showcase their confidence.
"I believe confidence-wise, and mentally, we are a completely different team," he said.
"We have made our way forward by challenging in the Premier League. We want to show the belief we have in our game, in our quality, more than looking at the past.
"We want to say we have practised, focused, we are determined and we want to win this competition, and we know we face the super-favourite, but the only way to do it is to knock them out."
Fighting talk from Wenger, who is set to put Samir Nasri straight into the team following his recovery from a hamstring injury, and will give 20-year-old goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny his first taste of Champions League action.
The Arsenal manager, however, perhaps betrayed his true feeling with an aside as he left yesterday's press briefing at the club's London Colney training base. When a few reporters wished him good luck, he smiled and said: "Thank you, we will need it." (© Independent News Service)