Arsenal v Barcelona preview
Wenger points to progress, but Guardiola has not been treading water
By Peter Fraser @SkySportsPeteF. Last Updated: February 16, 2011 7:19pm
Wenger and Guardiola: Rivals with mutual respect ahead of kick-off
Arsene Wenger hopes that a meeting with Barcelona in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League provides a measure of Arsenal's progress over the past 10 months.
The two teams meet for the second time in successive seasons in the knockout stages of the European Cup and the English side are desperate to improve on the last campaign, when a gulf in class was ruthlessly exposed.
Wenger's Arsenal were swept aside 6-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals in late March and early April of 2010 after escaping from a passing master class with a 2-2 draw in the first leg, before being blown away by Lionel Messi's brilliance in Spain.
Ahead of kick-off at Emirates Stadium in their 2010/11 encounter with Pep Guardiola's defending Primera Liga champions, Wenger has claimed that his side have improved since being humbled over two legs in the last campaign.
But while it will be interesting to see how a team who are constantly accused of naivety have developed, it should be remembered that Barcelona have not exactly been treading water since last spring.
It is open to discussions, statistics and trophies as to whether Guardiola's team are in fact the best team in history, as is often claimed, however, it cannot be doubted that they will certainly be remembered among the greatest.
The awe-inspiring El Clasico destruction of Real Madrid in November epitomised Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi's tiki-taka ability to tear teams apart, while also hunting in packs when out of possession in a brand of 21st Century Total Football.
Arsenal have been attempting to replicate this style and, although the Premier League title contenders have yet to reach the peaks of their Spanish contemporaries, Guardiola has admitted his respect for Wenger's intentions.
Cesc Fabregas will be pivotal to the Londoners' hopes of improving on last season, with the added sub-plot of Barcelona's failed summer attempt to take the Arsenal captain back to Catalonia, where he spent the majority of his youth career.
Fabregas is the heartbeat of his side and his absence due to injury in last season's second leg, having broken his leg when scoring the equalising penalty at the Emirates, undoubtedly hampered his team.
But Samir Nasri has been equally inspirational for Arsenal this season and the France international will be gladly welcomed back from the hamstring injury he sustained in January's FA Cup win over Huddersfield.
Tomas Rosicky has also recovered from a groin problem, but midfielder Abou Diaby, who would have provided a welcome shield for his defenders, is out with a sore calf. Bacary Sagna is absent through suspension.
England international Jack Wilshere is certain to start in one of the most obvious examples of Arsenal changes and apparent coming of age, with the now-19-year-old having been on loan at Bolton when Barcelona eliminated his parent club last season.
Guardiola, whose side did show signs of vulnerability in a draw against Sporting Gijon at the weekend, has pinpointed at least one away goal as the minimum requirement for the first leg.
The Barcelona boss will also have the added advantage of being able to select Iniesta for this season's meeting with Arsenal after the Spanish World Cup winner was not fit to start in 2010.
Carles Puyol is unavailable, but striker David Villa arrived in the summer from Valencia to provide an extra edge in attack alongside Messi and Pedro.
Possible starting XIs:
Arsenal: Szczesny, Eboue, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Walcott, Song, Wilshere, Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie.
Barcelona: Valdes, Maxwell, Pique, Abidal, Alves, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa.
UEFA Champions League Group A
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UEFA Champions League Group B
UEFA Champions League Group C
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UEFA Champions League Group D
UEFA Champions League Group E
UEFA Champions League Group F
UEFA Champions League Group G
UEFA Champions League Group H