Graham Hunter
Graham Hunter

Barcelona set Arsenal their greatest test

Thursday 3 February 2011, 11.58CET
Seeing FC Barcelona break a 50-year-old Liga record for consecutive wins may have sent a shiver down the spine of Arsenal FC fans and raised the question: how do you stop Barça?
Published: Thursday 3 February 2011, 11.58CET

Barcelona set Arsenal their greatest test

Seeing FC Barcelona break a 50-year-old Liga record for consecutive wins may have sent a shiver down the spine of Arsenal FC fans and raised the question: how do you stop Barça?

Seeing FC Barcelona reel off a Liga record 16 consecutive wins, not to mention noticing three Camp Nou players bestride the FIFA Ballon d'Or podium last month, may have sharpened the minds of Arsenal FC supporters on the question: "How can we get past Josep Guardiola's team?"

Undoubtedly, many followers of the north London side will also have fresh memories of the clubs' encounter in last season's UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. The Gunners were demolished 6-3, largely thanks to Lionel Messi's sublime four-goal performance in the second leg.

Yet in those two exceptional matches, in UEFA's Technical Report of the 2009/10 UEFA Champions League, and amid Barcelona's superlative displays this term, there are suggestions as to the key elements if Arsène Wenger is to end his record of never having defeated the Blaugrana in five attempts with Arsenal.

In the Liga and the UEFA Champions League this season, Guardiola's immensely attacking outfit have conceded just 14 times. Of those goals, eight have come when the ball is crossed into the box from corners, outright wing play or a free-kick. And of the eight, four have either been scored directly from a header or resulting from an opponent outjumping the Barça defence.

The technical report shows that of the 320 UEFA Champions League goals last term, most – 63 – resulted after crosses from the wing, and that 119 of them stemmed from crosses of various description, such as corners, free-kicks, diagonal balls into the area and wing play.

Guardiola often starts games with a 4-3-3 formation which transforms when Sergio Busquets drops back in front of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué into a 3-4-3 – leaving pockets of space behind the wing-backs. Seared in the coach's memory will be the rapid counterattacking wing play which brought two of Arsenal's goals, for Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner, last time around.

And talking of Puyol, the FIFA World Cup winner has been absent for all three of Barcelona's defeats this campaign, against Sevilla FC in the Spanish Super Cup, Real Betis Balompié in the Copa del Rey and Hércules CF in the Liga. His knee problem is scheduled to keep him sidelined until the first match of the tie, taking place in London. Will he be ready?

Then there is the absolutely obvious. Can Arsenal stop Messi? Last season's top scorer in the competition – including those four second-leg strikes against the Gunners – has 27 goals in the Liga and Europe combined in 2010/11, plus 15 assists. FC Internazionale Milano managed to halt him in last season's semi-final; can Arsenal press, mark and harass the world's best player equally well?

Also worthy of special preparations are Pedro Rodríguez and Daniel Alves who have 17 goal assists between them this term. Barcelona cannot be allowed easy possession. Wenger himself said, after fighting back for a 2-2 home draw against Barça last April, that "the way we gave the ball away is beyond understanding". If few teams live with Guardiola's men, none do when they concede possession cheaply. Inter may have stopped them in their tracks, but can Arsenal do the same now?


Last updated: 11/03/11 13.28CET