FC Barcelona face Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, as they look to continue their title defense.
In just over a week, reigning UEFA Champions League title-holders FC Barcelona will square off against Arsenal in what is expected to be a highly entertaining Round of 16 matchup. Here is the official SQ preview:
When And Where:
First Leg: Tuesday, Feb. 23 at Emirates Stadium (London, England).
Second Leg: Wednesday, March 16 at Estadio del Camp Nou (Barcelona, Spain).
Group Stage Recap:
FC Barcelona, 14 points, 4-2-0 (W/D/L):
Barca made quick work of Group E, only dropping four total points (Getty).
The Spanish super-club coasted through Group E with relative ease, winning the group by going undefeated in their six matches. Their only two hiccups came in draws away to both Roma and Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Offensive dominance characterized Barca’s group stage games, as they registered a total goal-difference of +11, tying for the second-best goal difference of any team in the UCL group stages. Manager Luis Enrique will feel confident in his side as they progress into the knockout rounds, given their all-around success in the first phase of this competition.
Arsenal, nine points, 3-0-3 (W/D/L):
Arsenal advanced out of Group F, but barely (Michael Regan-Getty Images).
Despite their placement in a presumably easy grouping, manager Arsène Wenger’s men struggled against each of the other three teams in Group F. While splitting victories with eventual group winners Bayern Munich was certainly impressive, the Gunners’ consecutive early losses (2-1 at Dinamo Zagreb and 3-2 against Olympiacos) highlighted both the occasional shakiness of Arsenal’s defense as well as the streaky nature of their attack.
However, the London side were able to shake off these first two defeats and win three of their next four by decisive margins. In the end, Arsenal finished level on points with Olympiacos, but they advanced out of Group F in the second-place spot via their superior head-to-head goal difference against the Greek club, cutting things much too close for any Gunners fan’s liking.
What To Watch For:
FC Barcelona: The ”MSN” Trio (Messi, Suarez, Neymar)
Fans of the Blaugrana should consider themselves extremely blessed. Their club currently fields arguably one of the most lethal strike forces in soccer history. First and foremost there is Lionel Messi. The Argentinian striker is coming off of a spectacular 2015, which included a Ballon d’Or individual award as well as multiple trophies with FCB. Even though he has had to deal with some nagging minor injuries this season, Messi still managed to tally three goals and one assist in only three UCL group stage appearances. When healthy, the 28-year-old is indisputably the best player in the game right now and possibly even the greatest to ever grace a soccer pitch.
If Messi is the foremost head of Barcelona’s attacking Cerberus, his fellow superstars Luis Suarez and Neymar are the other two. Suarez, a 29-year-old ex-Liverpool hero, has been the most productive Barcelona player in this season’s Champions League, scoring five goals and assisting two in five appearances. While his temper and passion often get him into trouble (and into hypothetical World Hype XI rosters), the Uruguayan forward is undoubtedly one of the most clinical finishers in the world at the moment.
Last but not least, we come to Neymar. Having effectively succeeded the legendary Ronaldinho as Brazil’s favorite son, the 24-year-old forward came to Barca from Santos FC in his home country under dubious financial circumstances and with unbelievably high expectations. So far, he has more than lived up to the billing. He almost single-handedly carried Brazil to the World Cup semifinals back in 2014, is poised to be the new main man for Nike Soccer, and has managed to shine brightly in the Barcelona offense despite the sizable auras of the aforementioned Messi and Suarez. In five Group E games, Neymar hit the back of the net twice and set up four other goals. Young, talented, and remarkably unselfish, Neymar is the third member of Barcelona’s famed MSN trio.
Messi, Suarez, and Neymar combined to score an incredible 10 of Barcelona’s 15 group stage goals, even though each of them missed at least one of their club’s six games. It is this unique collective-yet-individualized strength that sets them apart. Although any two of them will still wreak havoc on any defense, and even just one would cause some serious problems, these three together make Barcelona’s forward line nigh on unstoppable. Barring some freak triple-injury, look for MSN to score, score, and score some more in these next two games.
Arsenal: Defensive Stability In The Center Of The Pitch
Arsenal’s primary objective come Feb. 23 must be to minimize the damage that Messi, Suarez, and Neymar can inflict. The Gunners stand little chance in a shootout, so they need to limit the number of opportunities MSN have to make them pay. Since Wenger likes to have his outside backs Nacho Monreal and Héctor Bellerín make frequent overlapping runs when Arsenal is in possession, this responsibility will fall primarily on Arsenal’s defensive midfield and centerbacks.
Arsenal’s main holding midfielder, Frenchman Francis Coquelin, has blossomed into a relatively consistent performer at The Emirates in the past year or so. The 24-year-old’s aggressive tackling and hustle are invaluable assets for someone in his position, and they will be crucial in his efforts to make life difficult for the Barcelona attack.
However, Coquelin’s tenacity also presents a certain disciplinary liability for his club. The midfielder has accumulated four yellow cards in only 14 Premier League appearances this season and has come dangerously close to a red card ejection on more than one occasion. Having to play Barca while a man down would make a difficult task practically impossible, so Coquelin should plan to be on his best behavior.
Either Koscielny or Mertesacker might not start against FC Barcelona (Laurence Griffiths-Getty Images).
Behind Coquelin lies the real area of uncertainty in the Arsenal defense. In the club’s last few Premier League games, Wenger has rotated Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, and Gabriel Paulista in his two starting centerback spots to mixed results. On paper, the Mertesacker-Koscielny duo seems to be the right choice to face Barcelona, as they have both been staples in the Arsenal back line for the past few years.
That being said, neither player has played well on a consistent basis in recent weeks, and the youth and relative quickness of Gabriel could be helpful against such fearsome opposition. Whichever pairing Wenger opts to go with against Barca will have their hands full to be sure, and an Arsenal win will almost definitely require standout performances from both centerbacks and Coquelin.
Prediction: FC Barcelona 4-2 Arsenal (Aggregate)
Simply put, the trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar is just too potent an attack to realistically see Barcelona losing this matchup. Arsenal struggled defensively in the group stage against significantly inferior competition, and with the way “MSN” has been picking apart opposing defenses lately, it would be asking a lot of Coquelin and Co. to do much more than keep these games close. Arsenal are certainly not going to be a walkover, but FC Barcelona will keep their title defense intact and come out of this two-legged affair as the victors.
[Statistics courtesy of foxsoccer.com]
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