Arsenal vs Barcelona: keep calm and learn from Leicester
The Gunners face an almost impossible task, but there are ways to halt the mighty Catalan team
Arsenal take on Barcelona in the Champions League tonight, with the Gunners fearing the prospect of another European horror show.
The Spanish champions are in devastating form, unbeaten since early October and eight points clear at the top of La Liga. They have scored 23 goals in their last seven games, while Arsenal have managed only six.
Since Barcelona last lost a game, the Gunners have been beaten by Sheffield Wednesday, West Bromwich Albion, Southampton, Chelsea and Bayern Munich. The Catalan team have scored in all but three of their matches this season, while the London side have fired a blank in four of their last seven.
Barcelona manager Luis Enrique was even forced to abandon the false modesty that characterises the build-up to major clashes when he admitted it was "logical" for them to be favourites. Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, admitted the visitors would be "super favourites".
So what can Arsenal do to thwart Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar?
Keep it tight
The fans might not like it, but Arsenal's priority must be to avoid humiliation. "Simply failing to lose the tie outright in the opening 90 minutes would represent a vast improvement for a team who have become dreadful, fearful, fretful starters, failing to win the first leg of any European knockout tie since 2009," says Barney Ronay of The Guardian.
That means the Gunners cannot afford to go toe to toe with Barcelona.
Arsenal will learn from the "painful lessons" of the past, says Oliver Kay of The Times. "For years, Arsene Wenger has fought fire with fire in the Champions League — with predictable results. No more.
"Arsenal need to be more streetwise," he says. "Even if that may mean playing in an uglier, more cynical way."
Keeping Messi, Suarez and Naymar at bay is easier said than done. The trio are "unplayable at times", says Kay, and have scored 213 goals between them since the start of last season.
When Barcelona beat Manchester City earlier in the season, the opening goal was down to a "momentary lapse of concentration - the kind of thing that Arsenal have been guilty of years - and by the time Suarez scored his second, the tie was all but over", warns JJ Bull in the Daily Telegraph.
"Wenger will rely on Laurent Koscielny's excellent ability to read the game and make interceptions and World Cup winner Per Mertesacker's experience to keep things organised at the back. Ramsey must be more disciplined than ever."
Learn from Leicester
On a more technical level, Bull explains how Barcelona drag defences around the pitch to create space for their strikers. Defenders double or even triple up on Messi, leaving room for his team-mates to exploit. It is all about creating a "tilt" in the opposition defence and Barca are brilliant at it.
Leicester adopted similar tactics in their recent meeting with the Gunners. They used intricate passing patterns and swift counter-attacks to create holes in the defence. Jamie Vardy used his pace to get behind the defence and Riyad Mahrez's trickery helped unbalance the Gunners' rearguard.
"If Vardy is a Poundland Suarez, dragging defenders around the place, Mahrez is a Costcutter Messi. Arsenal must be aware of the danger and defend it a lot better than they did against Leicester."
To prosper, the Gunners will have to ally concentration with calm and cool heads will be needed when they have the ball, says Martin Keown in the Daily Mail. "Barcelona test your ability on the ball by pressing you, running around in a frantic fashion. If you're calm, play three or four passes, you'll keep it and they’ll melt away; if you panic, they will win it back."
Playing a cautious game and attacking aerially may not sound like Arsenal, but two of their most famous recent victories - against Man City last season and Bayern Munich this - have been born of pragmatism rather than Wengerian idealism. It is time for a repeat.
Arsenal will have a height advantage against Barcelona, notes Bull. "It might not be the worst idea in the world to focus on crossing the ball into Giroud and plan for [Mesut] Ozil, Alexis [Sanchez] or [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain to finish second balls that fall loose in the area."
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher agrees and tells the Daily Mail: "They have to look to exploit Javier Mascherano's lack of height by firing balls into Olivier Giroud."