UCL: Arsenal v Barcelona 1st Leg

Written by Aaron Crowie for @HollywoodbetsFollow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!

Arsenal v Barcelona | Tuesday 22nd February | Emirates Stadium | 21:45








The UEFA Champions League round of 16 has served up some explosive encounters – with one of them being Arsenal taking on the title holders Barcelona. Two teams that pride themselves on possession-based, attacking football.

Can Arsenal stop the deadly trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar? Or will the South American threesome have their way with the Gunners?


To Win (90mins)
Arsenal 38/10
Draw 31/10
Barcelona 13/20

Arsenal
Arsenal will be seeking a positive first-leg result against Barcelona in London as they bid to avoid a third knockout defeat by the Champions League holders this decade. The Gunners are looking to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010. They reached the knockout stage for the 16th season running thanks to a 3-0 win at Olympiacos in the final group game in December. They had lost three of their first four group games but finished as group runners-up thanks to a superior head-to-head record against Olympiacos.

Arsenal have lost the first leg at home in each of their three previous last-16 ties – against Bayern Munich (2013, 2014) and Monaco (2015). However, Arsenal have won five of their eight previous two-legged ties against Spanish clubs in UEFA competition.

In the previous matches with Barcelona, and indeed in almost every game for a number of seasons, Arsene Wenger’s approach was that, no matter the quality of Arsenal’s opponents, his side would go toe-to-toe with them. There was very little attempt made to stifle the opposition’s threats, rather a purist’s obsession with simply trying to outplay them. But there have been signs in the last year or so that the veteran manager has acknowledged that such an approach has led to some chastening defeats and contributed to a long wait for major silverware. Wenger has shown that he can adapt to 21st Century football and can abandon his philosophy of possession and passing football to get results against the biggest of teams. There is now a greater willingness to sit back and strike on the counter-attack against the very best teams. And there is evidence that such a plan could reap some rewards against the Catalan giants.

Much has been made over the last few months about the impact Mesut Ozil has made as a creator and talisman for Arsenal. The German playmaker is one of the most creative players in world football. His silky passes, classy touches and movement off the ball always gives Arsenal a fighting chance and he has at times single handily saved Arsenal from embarrassment this term. Alexis Sanchez has struggled to find form since his return from injury, but when he faces his former club Barcelona, the Chilean will be even hungrier to get back to his best. On his day, Sanchez is an absolute beast with his pace, powerful running, incredible work ethic, quick feet and dazzling dribbling skills. Barcelona know all about him and will need to keep him quiet.

Arsenal have shown an increased resilience in big games which will offer hope as they look to get past the last-16 stage for the first time in six years.



Barcelona
Barcelona swept through the group phase undefeated and also sit top of La Liga. As if that weren’t worrying enough for Arsenal, there is every reason to believe Luis Enrique’s side will be even stronger when the two sides lock horns. Winners of Group E, Barcelona were one of only two teams to go through the group stage unbeaten, with an away record of one win and two draws from three matches. Enrique's team are looking to reach the quarter-finals for the ninth consecutive season.

Barcelona are a different animal these days; they're more direct, more potent and more open. They no longer retain possession for possession's sake, and they've moved away, to an extent, from working tight openings through shorter interchanges and runs. Enrique has opened this side out in several ways, varying the way they are able to attack. Ivan Rakitic overcame a slightly slow start to emerge as a key player in attack. Barcelona move forward more rapidly and more incisively than ever before.
Gerard Pique is back to form, Javier Mascherano has had a world-class season and the depth in the squad is rather enviable. The scary thing when considering Barcelona as an entity is that they appear the complete package, and they've peaked at the right time. They counter-attack well, they still control well and they have the best front three in the business. Can Arsenal stop Messi, Neymar and Suarez? Can anyone stop them? Enrique has called his front three the greatest in history and it would be hard to disagree.

They set records with their goalscoring feats last season, and, if anything, they have only improved this campaign. Each with the ability to destroy an opponent single-handedly, they also have an incredible and selfless chemistry. The Messi-Suarez-Neymar trident has been pulled apart by injury at times this season but even without one piece of the trio, Barcelona’s attack is one to be feared.

There is an argument that they have rarely been tested in La Liga but having won 4-0 away at European third-favourites Real Madrid, Arsenal will be very wary. The obvious favourites are hoping to be the first back-to-back winners since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992 and there looks little reason to bet against them.

Betting Verdict: Draw 31/20
It will be the third time in seven seasons that Arsenal will come up against Barcelona in the Champions League knockout phase. Barcelona come into this encounter as large favourites to make it to the quarter-finals for a ninth consecutive season but Arsenal have returned to form in recent weeks. Both teams are great on the counter, and will take a wary approach to this match. An evasive encounter is expected, with the draw looking a likely outcome.

  
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