Tuesday 24 April 2018

Wenger vows to play Barca's 'artists' at their own game

Mark Fleming

A VIOLENT spring storm blew into the Arsenal training ground in London Colney yesterday, fortunately after the first-team players had finished their session with manager Arsene Wenger.

Tonight they have to face football's equivalent of a tempest when they host Barcelona at the Emirates in the Champions League quarter-final first leg.

The visit of Lionel Messi and his free-scoring team-mates provides the sternest of examinations for Wenger. The Frenchman was yesterday determined not to make concessions to his exalted visitors, who are the defending champions and a team that Arsenal have yet to beat in three attempts.

Nor was he in the mood to temper the team's creative emphasis, even though the mercurial Cesc Fabregas remains a doubt and faces a late fitness test on his knee injury. Arsenal's ability to perform with a freedom and swagger is surpassed only by tonight's opponents, who come to north London with a reputation for being the finest football team on the planet.

Yet Barcelona have shown themselves to be beatable in the past couple of seasons.

The pragmatic template was set out by Chelsea last season, when their temporary coach Guus Hiddink came so close to masterminding a tactical victory in the semi-finals by stifling Barcelona for 180 minutes.

A sterile goalless draw in the Nou Camp was followed by a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, when a late, late equaliser from Andres Iniesta ensured Barcelona's narrow progress on the away-goals rule.

A season earlier, and Manchester United were too cagey for Barcelona at the semi-final stage, winning 1-0 at home thanks to Paul Scholes' goal after another goalless draw in Catalonia. Yet Wenger is not one to sacrifice his principles on the altar of expediency.

Wenger expressed his belief in football as art, and there was determination yesterday that he would send his team out tonight in the hope they will create something beautiful.

"I am confident that we can respond to the expectation of all people who love football but also our fans because they want us to do something special and we want to deliver that," he said.

"I believe that when you do something, whether it be writing, dancing, or playing football, if you do it at the best level it becomes art.

"They have an exceptional team but we are an exceptional team as well and the form on the day, the desire, the belief, how much we play for each other, will make the difference.

"We can make history in kicking Barcelona out. The most important is to make sure that we turn up with our best performance. And that we are not too much in respect of them but have a go. That we are brave and that we express our strengths. If we produce our best performance, we can beat any side in the world."

Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager, was singing from the same lyrical songsheet.

"All around the world everyone admires Arsenal," he said yesterday. "But we are coming to win. We are going to try to score a goal because away goals are very important."

Guardiola won the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey in his first season in charge, prompting Wenger to describe him as having "started his career with the dessert". The two men have a mutual respect for each other that should ensure a far more compelling contest than the last time the sides met, in the 2006 final, which Barcelona won 2-1.

Sadly neither side is at full strength. As well as the doubt over Fabregas, Arsenal will also be without Robin van Persie, although William Gallas has returned to full training and is expected to replace Sol Campbell in defence. For Barcelona, Iniesta is ruled out with a thigh injury.

The focus tonight falls on Messi, who is tapping such a rich vein of form. But much attention will also be on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the striker signed in the summer from Internazionale in a deal worth £60m who has yet to score against English clubs in 10 European ties, for Ajax, Juventus and Internazionale.

Ibrahimovic, who 10 years ago did not impress during a trial at Arsenal, angrily dismissed suggestions he has a point to prove to an English audience.

"I have won six league titles in a row, I don't know how much I have to prove after that," he said.

Unwittingly, Ibrahimovic had exposed the great difference between the clubs. They both play attractive football, but only Barcelona have combined style with substance, by playing with a flourish but also winning trophies.

Arsenal's last was the 2005 FA Cup after a soporific final against Manchester United ended in penalties.

It is not a tactic Wenger will adopt tonight, even though history suggests a more defensive approach might be more successful. (© Independent News Service)

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