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Arsenal Will Face a Different Barcelona to Side Which Struggled at Las Palmas

Barcelona's Neymar kicks the ball trying to beat Las Palmas' goalkeeper Javi Varas during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Las Palmas and Barcelona, at the Gran Canaria stadium in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria island, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Lucas de Leon)
Lucas de Leon/Associated Press
Rik SharmaChief Writer IVDecember 23, 2016

On Tuesday night in the UEFA Champions League, at the Emirates Stadium in north London, Arsenal host Barcelona. Both teams are in the title race in their respective leagues, and it's arguably the tie of the round of 16 in Europe's premier competition.

But to look at the two performances these sides put in on Saturday, you would never have guessed it.

Arsenal slogged through their FA Cup fifth-round game with Hull City, unable to break the deadlock, meaning a replay will be needed after the 0-0 draw.

Arguably only two of the starters from this game, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, will form part of Arsene Wenger's XI in midweek, though.

Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were called from the bench, and they sparked life into Arsenal, with the team's second-half showing a little more like what we can expect in the Champions League.

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Barcelona were also significantly below par on Saturday.

And given they put out a side that seemed close to full-strength, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar up front, Arsenal might be tempted to take the 2-1 win away at Las Palmas as a sign of weakness. That would be wrong.

Various factors contributed to Barcelona's bad performance in the Canary Islands. Factors that will not affect them in London.

For one, there were two notable absences. Gerard Pique was rested, with Jeremy Mathieu stepping in. Sergio Busquets was suspended, and Sergi Roberto took his place.

Neither of those two replacements is awful. But likewise neither can come near the level of the man whose shoes he had to fill.

Barcelona's midfielder Sergi Roberto(L) vies Las Palmas' forward Jonathan Viera (R) during the Spanish league football match UD Las Palmas vs FC Barcelona at the Gran Canaria stadium in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on February 20, 2016. / AFP / DESIREE MART
DESIREE MARTIN/Getty Images

Pique and Busquets are part of Barcelona's spine, and both of them help to build attacks from the back and are the team's two most important parts in cutting out an opponent's own moves.

Their return will transform Barcelona when they take on Arsenal.

Then, there was the condition of the pitch at the Estadio Gran Canaria. After days of bad weather and a torrential storm, it wasn't the greatest surface to play on. By contrast, the turf at the Emirates is pristine, and that plays into Barcelona's hands.

Luis Enrique's Barcelona also have two modes: They have performances like this and then another level, three gears higher.

Against Las Palmas they suffered in defence, with the hosts creating several chances. And without Pique and Busquets, Messi saw less of the ball and was not involved as much. They are a funnel from which the team's play starts.

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi leaves the pitch at the end of the Spanish league football match UD Las Palmas vs FC Barcelona at the Gran Canaria stadium in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on February 20, 2016. / AFP / DESIREE MARTIN        (Phot
DESIREE MARTIN/Getty Images

In the 6-1 win over Celta Vigo in their previous outing, we saw both sides of Barcelona. They weren't playing particularly well until the final 20 minutes, when they somersaulted up to dizzying heights.

Las Palmas away, at 4 p.m. local time, in a league match to go nine points clear of Atletico Madrid and 10 clear of Real Madrid, doesn't have the same pull as Tuesday's clash.

With the eyes of the world on the trident and what is likely to be the Gala XI (Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Dani Alves, Pique, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta) behind, Barcelona will improve.

Spanish newspaper Diario Sport is confident of that. Its front cover on Sunday ran: "Wenger, don't get too excited, we were snoozing."

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Arsene Wenger the manager of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium February 14, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

And it will probably prove to be correct. Anyone who has seen this Barcelona play in a big game will know they are far removed from the team we witnessed on Saturday.

Or didn't witness, if you were Wenger. He left his post-game press conference telling journalists he was going home because "Barcelona play at 5:30 p.m., and I want to watch them."

Unfortunately, he got the times wrong. Kick-off was 3 p.m., and Luis Suarez had already scored the opening goal by that point.

In the end it didn't matter; this Barcelona display won't prove too useful for the coach to analyse. The Clasico win over Real Madrid, the 6-1 humiliation of Roma and the 7-0 destruction of Valencia. Those will be more appropriate.

Not because Barcelona are going to have things all their own way against the Premier League challengers—but just because that's big-game Barcelona. And Wenger should expect to see them on Tuesday.

 

Any quotes taken firsthand.

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