Barcelona v Arsenal
Thursday March 17, 6:45am
Barcelona and Arsenal both started 2016 top of their domestic divisions, but they have been on drastically different trajectories since as the 2014/15 treble winners once again make the most challenging phase of the campaign look inexplicably straightforward.
Having been level at the peak of La Liga on New Year’s Day, they are now eight points clear, they are in another Copa del Rey final and they lead this Champions League round-of-16 tie 2-0 following the trip to the Emirates, making Europe’s first ever “double treble” a wholly realistic target.
Despite the fixture pile-up caused by going deep into every competition and contesting the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, they are surprisingly unhindered by injuries too. Only back-up players Rafinha and Sandro are absent, while Gerard Pique is suspended, with some suggesting that he took a booking intentionally in the first leg to ensure his availability for the quarter-finals.
So how have Arsenal handled the responsibility of title frontrunning compared to their hosts? Well, they have won two of their last nine Premier League games, causing them to fade 11 points behind unlikely pacesetters Leicester.
Combine that with an FA Cup quarter-final exit at home to Watford and their 2-0 deficit in this Champions League double header and what was meant to be Arsene Wenger’s year of vindication instead threatens to be his first trophyless season in three, increasing speculation about a summer divorce.
What could be worse than travelling to the holders two goals down and shorn of any semblance of form? How about having eight players sidelined? The Londoners are missing Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Mikel Arteta a doubt.
Arsenal have a flair for heroic failure which usually inspires them to launch a dramatic almost-comeback from this kind of position. In 2012, they beat AC Milan 3-0 after losing the first leg 4-0, in 2013, they reacted to a 3-1 home defeat to Bayern with a 2-0 success at the Allianz Arena and last year, they repeated the same scorelines against Monaco.
However, even an artificial recovery is difficult to imagine at Camp Nou. The Gunners have earned a single victory from their last seven encounters in all competitions at that was at Championship side Hull. They are winless in five against top-tier foes, suffering losses in four of those showdowns.
Barcelona are on a run of 18 triumphs in 19 matches and eight in a row, not to mention ten on the spin in front of their fans, and they prevailed 4-1 and 3-1 on the two other occasions that Arsenal visited this decade. So while 1.26 might seem a short price on them delivering, it is vindicated.
Both Teams to Score
Those paragraphs weren’t fun reading for Arsenal fans, so let’s try to give them a positive: they should at least score in Catalonia. They have done so on every prior venture there and have fired ten times across their past five games this term regardless of the rotten results.
Barcelona have been breached in four of their most recent six home outings, Wenger’s men haven’t been shut out in six Champions League away days and they have never been eliminated without netting.