Arsenal undoubtedly admire Barcelona but they must put that out of their minds to have any chance of beating the Spanish side in the Champions League last 16 starting at the Emirates on Wednesday.
Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s most influential player, sometimes gives the impression that he is on sabbatical in London, sharpening his game for when he returns to the Barcelona club he left as a 16-year-old.
“We know they are the best team in the world and it is a big task for us but we will do our best,” Fabregas said in a lukewarm war-cry hardly likely to get the fans jumping.
Asked about the lessons of last season’s 6-3 quarter-final hammering by the Spaniards, Fabregas said. “It’s difficult to learn. They are such a good team, they have so many quality players that can make the difference. They were great last year, they played us at our own game and they were brilliant”.
It is hardly surprising Fabregas worships at the Nou Camp shrine but manager Arsene Wenger too seems to hold the team he lost to in the 2006 final as the ultimate footballing model.
Wenger’s ideal side is one full of short, skilful players with a great touch, wonderful vision and the ability to pass all day - just like Barcelona.
Arsenal’s intricate passing, though too-often overcooked in and around the area, is usually enough to find a hole in Premier League defences.
However, as Wenger discovered last season, when his team come up against a side doing the same only better and with superior front men to finish it all off, things can go badly wrong.
“In the first half we gave Barcelona too much respect and we were lucky to get away with it,” he said of the first leg when Arsenal trailed 2-0 but fought back to draw 2-2.
Lionel Messi’s four goals in the second leg ended Arsenal’s interest but Barcelona found things much tougher in the semifinal against Inter Milan. The Italians sat deep, allowed their opponents to pass themselves to sleep and swarmed all over them whenever they approached the box.
Wenger, however, said he had no plans to adopt that successful spoiling tactic, certainly at home, and would again go to-to-toe in trying to outpass the pass-masters.
“The question at the Nou Camp is ‘will we change the way we play?’ but here we will try to play to our strengths. We will try to attack the other team,” he said before his side’s 11th successive foray into the knockout phase.
“If we play in the final third defensively, it will not be our game. We have matured from last year so it is important we play with belief.”
Wenger said he was unlikely to take a “crazy gamble” on Samir Nasri, who has just about recovered from a hamstring strain but does seem likely to throw young midfielder Jack Wilshere in for the toughest test of his fledgling career.
Barcelona go into the game having seen their record 16-match winning run ended with a 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon but they still lead Real Madrid by five points.
With Arsenal also going well domestically, four points behind leaders Manchester United, Barcelona forward Pedro, one of eight Spanish World Cup-winners in the Catalan club’s squad, said he expected an attractive and open game.
“Arsenal are a fantastic side and a very tough opponent with very good players,” he said. “Maybe they are more dangerous this year.”
Arsenal: 6-Wojciech Szczesny; 7-Gael Clichy, 18-Sebastien Squillaci, 6-Laurent Koscielny, 28-Kieran Gibbs; 23-Andrei Arshavin, 7-Cesc Fabregas, 17-Alex Song, 9-Jack wilshere,14-Theo Walcott; 10-Robin van Persie.
Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Dani Alves, 3-Gerard Pique, 22-Eric Abidal, 19-Maxwell; 6-Xavi, 16-Sergio Busquets, 8-Andres Iniesta; 17-Pedro, 10-Lionel Messi, 7-David Villa.
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).