In just five days time, the Emirates Stadium will play host to an absolutely mouthwatering tie between two of Europe's premier clubs in the Champions League Round of 16 knockout stage. Arsenal come in as the underdogs at home on Wednesday the 16th, looking to upset Barcelona and take a vital lead to the Camp Nou on March 8th. Can the Gunners breach the stanch "Blaugrana" back line led by Carles Puyol? I think so, but, more importantly, can they contain David Villa and Lionel Messi?
The match is so compelling for so many reasons. Arguably the two best youth systems will be matching up again on Europe's biggest stage. The styles dictated from the managers are similar, the midfield play is stellar and there's no doubt the entire world will be watching. The following is my prediction and whom will play the pivotal roles in deciding this epic Champions League tie.
Bacary Sagna is in the form of his career so far this season. The 27-year-old Frenchman has been a force this season at right back for Arsene Wenger, and has been pushing forward down flanks and becoming a threat in the final third. He will have his hands full and will no doubt spend most of the game in his own half, but, if Arsenal is going to contain Barca, it will be in large part to the #3.
The Gunners will also need a tremendous effort from Gael Clichy and Johan Djourou (if he's healthy in time). The advantage still is with Barcelona in the experience of arguably the best back four in the world, headlined by "El Capitan" Carlos Puyol and Pique. In addition to that, Dani Alves will play a critical role counter attacking, and he has the ability to deliver set pieces from distance.
Advantage Barca. Too much experience in the biggest games, on the biggest stages, and against the world's best players.
This midfield matchup is phenomenal. The usual suspects will all be present in Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Nasri, Fabregas, and Jack Wilshere. All of whom are in good form.
But the difference rests at the feet of Song and Diaby for me.
If they can't influence the game with strong tackles in the midfield and retain possession for Cesc and Nasri to create chances going forward, it could be a long two nights. They are more than capable and it's imperative that they do so. Otherwise, Xavi and Iniesta will sit back in their usual role of close control passing and maintain at least 65% of the possession. Arsenal cannot afford to chase the game at the Emirates.
This is the most critical part of the pitch on Wednesday. I feel Barca have the slight advantage, but Arsenal just oozes with young class. What a stage for young Jack Wilshere to step up and turn the tie on its head.
If the Gunners are going to get on the score sheet, he has to orchestrate productive set pieces and break down some of the game's best defenders. No doubt this will be tough, and he will need help from Van Persie to get it done. Don't forget about the cocky Dane either, as Wenger has used him in big spots in the past. As a sub, Bendtner has the ability and frame to be threat in the box—especially with his head.
Now to the Blaugrana. It's academic and obvious, but it's Messi and Villa. They have the best midfield tandem in the world, and their manager is brilliant. It's Johan Cruyff's brainchild at work, and it is a thing of beauty. Whether you love or hate the Catalan giants, they have the best attacking front in the world right now, and they have amassed the trophies and statistics to prove it.
Advantage Barca. Arsenal have to a have number of young guns that can make plays and get on the score sheet, but this really isn't a debate.
Pep just signed a year extension and won the sextuple in 2009. Wenger had "The Invincibles". Both are absolute class. Both clubs build and rely heavily on their youth systems, but Barca spend considerably more money on transfers. Wenger is, and always will be, frugal but runs his club like a going concern.
Guardiola and Arsene will both have their teams ready, but the edge goes to Pep Guardiola. He has all the leadership in his squad, and his core group have already won literally everything. Arsene is one of the best managers in the world, but it's well publicized he has struggled to recapture the glory of winning trophies in London for a few years.
The Gunners will score at the Emirates. But Barca will be too strong in the return leg at home. Barca have too much patience and too many threats all over the pitch, and defending for 180 minutes will be a daunting task for the Arsenal back four.
Hopefully Cesc and young Jack Wilshere will step up, which I hope they do from the neutral perspective, because this has all the potential and storylines to be another epic European tie.
Barca advance 3-2