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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Improving Arsenal face defining night at the Emirates

Last time round Arsenal were taught a lesson by Barcelona. There is no way of avoiding it, that night at the Nou Camp last year marked a low point for Arsene Wenger’s men. Having pitted determination against Barcelona’s ease of movement and telepathic knowledge of where a team mate is to secure a 2-2 draw in the first leg, Lionel Messi led the way in a 4-1 defeat that was as equally endearing as it was heart-breaking.

The movement and the pressure of the Catalan club was just too much for an overwhelmed, suffocated Arsenal. “Without the ball” Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola once said, "we are a disastrous team, a horrible team, so we need the ball.” So they went and found it.

To have some of the most talented players in the world that are also willing to work to regain possession and use the full array of their talents is something quite beautiful.

Barcelona are possibly a better team than the one they faced last year; they continue to grow together with the addition of David Villa and decimate records one at a time. Losing only once this season is by far their least impressive statistic.

They have won by more than three goals three times this season, four of which are with a five goal margin. They have scored 37 times away from home, by comparison, Real Madrid have scored 18 times away from the Santiago Bernabeau. Lionel Messi has bagged 24 goals from 20 games, with 15 assists. To say they are sports betting favourites to win La Liga would be a gross understatement.

Despite this, Arsenal have reason to believe. Difficult as it may be, Arsene Wenger’s men are a different team compared the side that were mauled in last year’s competition. With an ethos cut from the same cloth as Barcelona, the Gunners aren’t too shabby at the pass and move style of football. But there is something more.

The most constant accusations levelled at Arsenal is their apparent inability to stay the course, to keep moving when the going gets tough; that they have no muscle to go with their finesse.

This is starting to change. This season has seen Arsenal add a string to their bow. With the arrival of Marouane Chamakh as a physical presence up front there is a target for Andre Arshavin and increasingly impressive Theo Walcott, while the speedy development of Abou Diaby means that, when fit, he is able to boss the midfield like he is possessed by the ghost of Patrick Vieira. That they are still in the FA Cup, the Premier League and the Champions League shows their intent. Wenger described his side as “maturing” last month, an apt description of a side looking to fulfil their undoubted potential.

Wenger, one of football’s most astute minds will not allow a repeat of the last game against Barcelona. He will not allow his side to be harried in the same way, to be knocked off their stride so easily. If a more physical approach is required, then so be it. Robin Van Persie is beginning to fire once more and captain Fabregas is fully fit this time.

Barcelona are rightly considered one of the greatest teams of modern times. Arsenal have been gifted an opportunity to leave their own mark on history if they can overcome the quality of the Spanish league leaders. This season promises so much, it is almost time to deliver.

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