Arsenal haven’t been to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League since 2010. In five straight knockout stage appearances they’ve been bounced from the competition in the round of 16, having been little more than an afterthought in conversations of real contenders for the title.
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They’ve also endured a tortured recent history against this season’s round of 16 foe, Barcelona, who happen to be in the midst of one of the longest, most dominant unbeaten runs we’ve seen in quite some time.
So why, of all years, should we believe this to be any different for the Gunners? To find that answer, we’re going to have to look really, really deep into this round of 16 tie, which kicks off Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET, with live and post-game coverage on PST). Even then we might not find what we’re looking for.
Arsenal’s all-time CL meetings with Barcelona: 1-1 and 2-4 (group stage – 1999); 1-2 (2006 final); 3-6 (aggregate – 2010); 3-4 (aggregate – 2011). In short, history is not only not on Arsenal’s side, but it couldn’t be much more against them (one single-leg victory in seven meetings all-time – 2011 first leg).
Barcelona’s current unbeaten run: 32 games. The last time Barca lost, the date was Oct. 3, 2015. Simple math tells us that’s nearly five months without a loss in any competition.
Messi, Suarez and Neymar goals scored combined: 91 through 46 games (1.97 per game – all competitions) this season. Last season they combined to score 122 goals in 61 total games (2.0 per game – Suarez was suspended the first three months of the season). A better attacking trio has arguably never existed.
Do Arsenal even want to bother with progressing in the CL? They’ve not had a chance this good to win the Premier League since they last won it a decade ago. They’re two points back of Leicester City and level with Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve already got an fifth-round replay against Hull City in their bid for a third straight FA Cup. They’re finally close to having a fully fit squad, but is it deep enough to compete on three fronts when one of them involves European travel mid-week with important domestic games on the weekends either side? Of course they do, but it’ll only make life tougher in the meantime.
Will it even matter what they want? As is the case with most top sides, Arsenal struggle most noticeably against teams that are organized defensively, sit deep inside their own half and hit back on the counter-attack. Barcelona are the most proactive, possession- and attack-minded side in the world, and they’ll look to dominate possession and attack non-stop from the opening to final whistles. There will be room to hit back on the counter themselves, putting to good use the pace of Theo Walcott, the directness and nose for goal of Alexis Sanchez, and the brilliant vision and the splitting through balls of Mesut Ozil. The real problem lies in the fact that for every chance Arsenal have on the counter, Barca will have three or four or five during prolonged periods of possession while camped inside Arsenal’s half of the field.
Best of luck, Arsenal. You’re going to need it.