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Champions League Preview: Barcelona - Arsenal

Kick Off: Tuesday, April 6, 2010. 20:45 CET
Camp Nou, Barcelona

Ready To Peak

Now into April, the business end of the season is approaching, and Barcelona well know it, as the pressure slowly begins to build on Pep Guardiola’s side. They would not have it any other way, with Saturday’s potentially season-defining Clasico following swiftly on the heels of Tuesday night’s Champions League quarter-final affair against Arsenal.

Guardiola will feel his side should be out of sight in this tie. Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave la Blaugrana what seemed a decisive 2-0 advantage over their Premier League rivals at the Emirates Stadium last Wednesday night. The Gunners staged a remarkable comeback, with goals from Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas forcing them back into the tie.

Despite this rather uncharacteristic lapse, Barca remain confident. “It was very unusual, we could have won well but in the end we drew, but in Europe a draw is never bad. It will be easier to finish the tie at home,” Thierry Henry told AS after the first leg.

Seydou Keita was somewhat more bullish, indicating: “We have played a very good game and under normal conditions would have won 5-2. But that's football and now we have a big game with it all to win at home. We did everything but we lacked the final victory.”

Barca bounced back impressively on Saturday evening, defeating awkward foes Athletic Bilbao 4-1, leaving Guardiola to ruminate on a fine success, which was achieved without a number of first team regulars. “In recent matches I have been very pleased, because the team have played with great intensity and put a lot of pressure on our opponents,” the coach told the press. “We need everyone at the Camp Nou. We must treat the Arsenal match as if it were a final.”

The European champions are well versed in progressing after securing an away draw. Indeed, all of their knockout road fixtures en route to the final last term ended in 1-1 ties, with Camp Nou proving a veritable fortress on the continent.

Still Believing


Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium last weekend prompted a mixed response from manager Arsene Wenger, who was largely pleased with the manner in which his side approached the game, but was also a little disappointed with the way his side allowed their opponents to break into a two-goal advantage.

Speaking after last Wednesday’s match, the Frenchman told ITV: “My regret tonight, and I don't deny we played a great side, was that we gave two cheap goals away. For me, we had 70 minutes where we had every chance to win, which is what I told the players. But the way we gave away the goals today was beyond understanding.”

Though the manager was left lamenting the scoreline, winger Theo Walcott was in optimistic mood after his second half introduction helped to change the game. “It's going to be a tough game,” he said. “They have fantastic home support and they keep the ball very well, which frustrates us. However, I believe if we get an early goal and upset the fans, we have a chance.”

For long periods during Saturday’s Premier League encounter with Wolverhampton Wanderers it seemed that it would be the Gunners who would be frustrated as their dogged opponents clung desperately onto a 0-0 scoreline. Minus influential playmaker Cesc Fabregas, it looked set to be a regretful afternoon for the 2006 Champions League finalists.

With time ticking away, late goal specialists Arsenal found an injury time winner through Nicklas Bendtner’s header, keeping them in touch at the summit of the English top flight and providing them with fine momentum going into what promises to be the toughest game of their campaign.



FORM GUIDE

Barcelona


WON 4-1 (h) Athletic Bilbao (Liga, April 3)

DREW 2-2 (a) Arsenal (Champions League, March 31)

WON 1-0 (h) Mallorca (a) (Liga, March 27)

WON 2-0 (h) Osasuna (Liga, March 24)

WON 4-2 (a) Zaragoza (Liga, March 21)

Arsenal


WON 1-0 (h) Wolverhampton Wanderers (Premier League, April 3)

DREW 2-2 (h) Barcelona (Champions League, March 31)

DREW 1-1 (a) Birmingham City (Premier League, March 27)

WON 2-0 (h) West Ham United (Premier League, March 20)

WON 2-1 (a) Hull City (Premier League, March 13)

TEAM NEWS

Barcelona

Injury and suspension problems will cause coach Pep Guardiola more than his share of headaches. He has been able to plot for almost a week how to best cover the central defensive absences of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, who are both banned, though Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s breakdown in the pre-match warm-up on Saturday is more of an unwelcome surprise. The Swede will be sidelined, while there is also some doubt over the fitness of Yaya Toure. Andres Iniesta is liable to be missing once more.

Dimitriy Chygrynskiy cannot fill either of the central defensive berths as he is ineligible, meaning a likely partnership of Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez. Eric Abidal returned at left back on Saturday, while Dani Alves had a suspension-enforced break.

Up front, meanwhile, Bojan Krkic’s fine showing at the weekend, when he scored a brace against Athletic Bilbao, may be enough to ensure that he starts.

Probable Starting XI:
Valdes; Alves, Milito, Marquez, Abidal; Toure, Xavi, Keita; Messi, Bojan, Pedro

Arsenal

Like Barcelona, Arsenal have a good array of problems ahead of their trip to Catalunya. Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Johan Djourou and Robin van Persie are all recovering from long-term injuries, while William Gallas, who played in the first leg after declaring himself fit, now faces spending the remainder of the campaign in the treatment room.

Undoubtedly the greatest problem facing the Gunners is Cesc Fabregas’ absence. The Spaniard has been a talisman for the Emirates club, who will also be short of Russian offensive midfielder Andrey Arshavin.

Probable Starting XI:
Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Campbell, Clichy; Song, Denilson, Diaby; Walcott, Bendtner, Nasri

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Barcelona

Xavi
is a dominant force in the centre of midfield no matter the game. He will be the conductor in chief of Barca’s whole side, and if the Gunners can find a way to stop the 30-year-old, they will go some way to stopping their hosts. Arguably the best passer of the ball in the world, the diminutive playmaker is the heart beat of the Catalan club.

Arsenal

Nicklas Bendtner
is well equipped to cause problems for Barcelona, despite being an often lamented figure at the pinnacle of the Gunners’ offence. Barca had trouble coping with the physical threat of Athletic Bilbao over the weekend, and Bendtner has the physique to really pose the home side further issues. Scored a hat-trick against Porto in the previous round, and also snatched a late winner for the London club over the weekend.

PREDICTION


There are a number of factors weighing in Barcelona’s favour, but perhaps the most vital in Cesc Fabregas’ absence from the Arsenal team. The Catalonian had the potential to pose his former side problems, and he has thus far proven irreplaceable in the ranks of the Premier League side. Expect another open, entertaining encounter, with Barca going ahead and not allowing their grip on the game to loosen. Arsenal will score though.

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal


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