Barcelona v Arsenal preview
Arsenal venture into the cauldron of Camp Nou looking to protect a slender advantage and reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
Last Updated: 08/03/11 7:40pm
Arsenal venture into the cauldron of Camp Nou on Tuesday evening looking to protect a slender advantage and reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
The first leg of the last-16 tie lived up to its exalted billing as the Gunners came from behind to prevail 2-1 and give themselves a chance going into the return match.
David Villa's first-half goal put Barca firmly in control before Arsene Wenger's men turned a spirited performance into a sensational one thanks to late strikes from Robin van Persie and substitute Andrey Arshavin.
Arsenal have since been brought back down to earth following a number of disappointing results domestically, with injuries to key personnel threatening to undo much of the good work from the first few months of the campaign.
One major trophy has already passed them by, following a shock defeat to Birmingham in the final of the Carling Cup, while dropped points have dented Arsenal's Premier League title hopes.
An FA Cup clash with Manchester United also looms large at the weekend, meaning the next few days could prove pivotal to determining how this season will be remembered by fans of the North London club.
Arsenal's challenge for silverware has tended to unravel at this time of year since they last lifted a trophy in 2005, but there would appear to be more optimism in the air than fear at the present moment.
Wenger maintains that his young squad has finally attained maturity, while after the injury scares of recent weeks there have been some upbeat fitness bulletins over the past couple of days.
Van Persie provided Arsenal with the most surprising boost on Monday by returning to training ahead of schedule following a knee problem that had been expected to keep him sidelined for another few weeks.
The Dutchman has travelled to Catalonia and will undergo a late fitness test ahead of kick-off to see if he can take his place in a starting XI that could be close to full-strength.
Cesc Fabregas has overcome a hamstring problem and is almost certain to lead the side out for his first competitive appearance at Camp Nou, where Barca will hope he one day plies his trade on a weekly basis.
Jack Wilshere is also available despite picking up an ankle knock against Sunderland on Saturday, leaving Alex Song (knee), Theo Walcott (ankle) and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) as the only significant absentees.
Abou Diaby, Samir Nasri and Arshavin are expected to fill out the midfield spots alongside Fabregas and Wilshere, with Van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner or Marouane Chamakh ploughing a lone furrow up front.
As ever with Arsenal the biggest area of concern is defence, where inexperienced goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will be shielded by a back four of Bacary Sagna, Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Gael Clichy.
The Gunners may decide that attack is the best form of defence and will be desperate to score at least one away goal in the knowledge that shutting out Barca's formidable attack is nearly an impossible mission.
The Spanish champions certainly could not be contained in the corresponding fixture last season, when Lionel Messi produced a dazzling display to inspire Barca to a 4-1 home victory after a 2-2 draw in the first leg.
Messi will once again pose the biggest threat but Arsenal cannot afford to concentrate on just one player as Barca have so many weapons, including Villa, Pedro and midfield maestros Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Like Arsenal, if Barcelona do have a weakness it is at the back, especially as they will be without their first-choice centre-back pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.
Captain Puyol has failed to recover from a knee injury that has kept him out since the middle of January, while Pique is suspended after being booked in the first leg.
Eric Abidal and Sergio Busquets may be asked to form a makeshift partnership, with former Liverpool man Javier Mascherano coming in as the holding player.
Manager Pep Guardiola has played down these selection concerns and is expecting a 'great show' with so many star players still set to play on both sides.