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article imageBattling Barcelona's knack of winning may be enough at Arsenal

By Tyrrell Meertins     Feb 23, 2016 in Sports
No team has ever retained the UEFA Champions League since its transformation in 1992, but Luis Enrique’s Barcelona are determined to be the first.
Following a successful 2015 that witnessed the club win every trophy attainable — becoming the first team to win two European trebles — Enrique’s men now set their sights on history. Their first challenge, however, involves a trip to the Emirates to battle Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
Although the core team has changed in recent years, Wenger’s experience could prove crucial, here. Despite the last showdown taking place five years ago, Arsenal were unbeaten in both home fixtures, and have developed into a more well-rounded side since.
A second leg Lionel Messi master-class sent Arsenal crashing out of the competition in 2010, while Robin van Persie’s controversial dismissal a year later tilted a well-balanced tie into Barcelona’s favour. The Catalan club once again have the luxury of playing the second leg at the Camp Nou, but stylistically, Barca’s current form combined with the Wenger’s available options suggests the initial encounter won’t be a forgone conclusion.
Arsenal’s relation with Barcelona coincides with their possession dominance, but Wenger’s side have arguably transformed into a better-suited counter-attacking outfit. Equally, some of the Gunners’ best performances this season have witnessed the club blitz the opposition on the counter-attack.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil shell-shocked Manchester United in the opening 20 minutes of their encounter at the Emirates to take a commanding 3-0 lead. Arsenal also handed Leicester City a loss at the King Power Stadium, with the two aforementioned players and Theo Walcott proving decisive.
“I have seen Arsenal this season and they are going to press high at some points in the game and I hope we can keep possession in their half of the pitch and put our football into practice,” said Enrique.
“Our target is to win the game no matter what. So we need to score goals no matter what. Barcelona always has the possession of the ball and controls the game, so on paper this is one of he most attractive and appealing games. I think we’re going to witness a very good game because both want to dominate.”
More so, Arsenal have also defeated Bayern Munich and Manchester City at home as well, in which they defended deeper for longer spells before breaking forward with numbers when they won possession. Ultimately, the combination of both methods will be required if they intend on toppling Barcelona.
Assuming Olivier Giroud, Sanchez, Ozil, with either Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starting upfront, Wenger’s side offers a legitimate counter-attacking threat that can start the match with high-intensity pressing. The key, however, is whether they possess the discipline and organization to remain compact through lengthy spells of possession.
The returning Danny Welbeck can also be useful, here, against Sergio Busquets, who will aim to control the tempo with his metronomic passing. At Manchester United, Welbeck successfully stifled Xabi Alonso in ties against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, showcasing his tactical discipline before speeding past the Spaniard on the break.
Enrique’s men haven’t been entirely flawless since the turn of the year, despite carrying a 32-match unbeaten run heading into first leg. Their most recent victory at Las Palmas was without Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets which could explain why their midfield was constantly overran, and the defence was shoddy throughout. But this has been going on recently for Enrique’s men who are pulling away from their domestic title race.
Barca equally struggled against Celta Vigo at home albeit winning 6-1, as their diminutive defenders were targeted by the powerful John Guidetti, whilst the midfielders comfortably charged forward when the away side won possession. Enrique’s men cruised in the second half when Celta’s players tired due to their first half pressing, but they posed several threats to the hosts.
The Catalan club also succumbed to Atletico Madrid’s cohesive pressing for a brief period, but disciplinary issues from Diego Godin and Filipe Luis ensured Diego Simeone’s men ended the match with nine men. Yet, even at a player disadvantage prior to Godin’s dismissal, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco motored forward on the counter to create two quality chances.
In each scenario Barcelona were victorious, but it displays the fine line between triumph and disappointment. Nevertheless, it also represents a sign of progression from a side that would normally lose or heavily rely on Messi’s brilliance to bail them out when they weren’t at their best in previous years.
Now, Barcelona can turn to their star-studded attack which features the best three players in the world — they were the goal-scorers in all of the aforementioned games above. When it appears that Enrique’s men aren’t playing well, the South American trident have effortlessly filled the void because they execute the three main mechanics of the game exceptionally well — scoring, dribbling and passing.
First, Messi’s shift to the right flank last season was pivotal to the evolution of the club. The Argentine is no longer stifled in congested central areas, whereas with so much attention directed towards Messi, Neymar receives more space on the left to isolate the right-back. Neither Arsenal full-back can be defined as quality 1v1 defenders, and though Hector Bellerin may attempt to peg Neymar deeper by surging forward, he must also be wary of the Brazilian’s threat in transition.
Still, the player that embodies Enrique’s era thus far is Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan’s work-rate has always motivated teammates to push harder, but he’s significant to Barcelona’s pressing and their new-found direct play. His selfless lateral movement to chase hopeful balls into the channels equally creates space for Messi and Neymar in the final third to cut onto their stronger foot.
Elsewhere, Messi’s preference to drop near the half-way line for possession enables Neymar and Suarez to run beyond the defence to receive passes over the defence. The latter’s runs across the centre-backs has also been a source of goals, as this season alone, he’s held off Valencia’s Aymen Abdennour and Atletico’s Jose Gimenez in similar situations to score vital goals from simple passes over the defence.
Barca’s performances have been less convincing in recent weeks, but even their preparations in the biggest games have been something to admire. At the moment, though, the poor passing out the back, and insistence on waiting for the opposition to tire would be increasingly risky at the Emirates.
"They have a team that can score at any moment. Even when they are dominated they are still very dangerous," Wenger said. "At any moment they can take advantage of any weakness. They have bit less possession, but they are maybe quicker in transition."
Both sides have evolved in recent years, and while Barcelona are expected to dominate possession this encounter is unlikely to follow the Pep Guardiola – Wenger pattern. Since the last showdown, Arsenal have occasionally demonstrated the various ways — aggressive pressing and deep organized defending — to succeed against Barcelona.
Barcelona performed exceptionally well in both visits to the Emirates, but the cautious, yet patient intent to control an away leg has been replaced with a group of men eager to score at every opportunity. Depriving Barca’s front three space and time will be the key ploy here, but realistically, Arsenal may need to play the perfect game out of possession and ride their luck to earn a positive result.
Enrique’s Barca may not be in their best form, but their talented attacking trio, spearheaded by Suarez has seen the European champions develop an important trait they’ve lacked in recent years — the ability to win when they’re not at their best.
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