LONDON – English football is already counting down to 19:45, Tuesday, Feb. 23.
Possibly the greatest team in the history of the sport will be here to no doubt leave us once again marveling at the level of skill, movement, intelligence and the ability to make the seemingly impossible appear routine.
Arsenal will play the role of the opposition to Luis Enrique’s footballing Harlem Globetrotters . . . the Catalan Dream Team . . . the La Liga All Stars — aka FC Barcelona.
Of course, Arsenal may also play the role of spoilsports — even the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters’ long-time opponents, left Meadowlark Lemon and company reflecting on defeat six times (albeit in more than 13,000 matches).
The Gunners tend to do better when their backs are to the wall — they have enough outstanding players to overcome any side on their day, as was proven by the 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich four months ago. They also beat Pep Guardiola’s team 2-1 at Emirates Stadium five years ago thanks to two goals in the space of five minutes from Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie; eventual champion Barca won the second leg 3-1.
The problem is, such days are too often interspersed with nightmares because Arsenal has an ignominious habit of leaving its followers shaking their heads in disbelief, like the 3-2 home loss to Olympiacos earlier this season.
Arsene Wenger’s side can reach heights few predicted or slump to depths that are difficult to fathom given the talent on view.
Expectation of another home win over Barcelona is thin on the ground, but Arsenal fans cannot wait to see Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, who make up the most lethal attack in world football. Neutrals will be Barcelona supporters for the night, waiting to be entertained by a team that is on course to raise the bar set by Guardiola’s Barca. Nothing against Arsenal, but this is a team put together by the footballing gods.
The spine of Guardiola’s side remains — Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Iniesta, Busquets, and Messi were in the team from five years ago, while Javier Mascherano was on the bench. We shall be bombarded with stats involving Messi, Suarez and Neymar, Barcelona’s unstoppable scoring machine which has managed 92 goals between them this season — in 39 games this season on only three occasions have the Catalans failed to score, and one of those matches was a Copa del Rey tie against Villanovense when Luis Enrique chose a reserve XI.
Realistically, the only way to beat Barcelona in one game, let alone triumph over two matches, is for Arsenal to play to its absolute maximum in every respect and hope — make that pray — Barca finds it within itself to have two off nights.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has called Barcelona “super-favorites” in the past and preventing them from reaching the quarterfinals for the ninth consecutive season will be the ultimate test for the Gunners. Recalling the game in 2011 Wenger said: “The memory (I have) is that the winning goal was scored by Arshavin after we suffered for a big part of the game and we should be encouraged by that. We suffered in the first half, but in the second half we slowly came back into the game and became very dangerous.
“That should help us in this game against Barcelona. If we have uncomfortable moments, then we should have in our minds that we can still win even if it is difficult. It was really special (to win in 2011). What I also remember as well is that it reminded me of how football is really as a team because you can deliver something exceptional. Three or four days, later we went to Leyton Orient and drew in the F.A. Cup. In the same week that we were on a high, we were down again, but it will certainly be remembered as one of the exceptional nights at the Emirates.”
So what can give Arsenal hope?
Barcelona has kept only one clean sheet in its last six La Liga games, and if it is awarded a penalty don’t worry too much as between them Messi, Neymar (four), Messi (three) and Suarez (one) have missed eight of 15 spot-kicks this season. That is just about all. The bad news is that Barca has won 25 of its last 31 matches.
Against Barcelona last Wednesday, Sporting Gijon coach Abelardo, a former Barcelona player, fielded a weakened team against the La Liga leaders, saving his key players for more winnable matches. Abelardo was right as Sporting lost 3-1.
Suarez will be the only Barcelona player to be booed at Emirates. In 2013 Arsenal thought it could sign him by offering one penny over the £40 million release clause in his Liverpool contract. The clause was not what Arsenal had thought — “a misunderstanding” said his agent, Pere Guardiola, brother of Pep — and the Uruguay international eventually moved to Barca for £75 million in 2014.
While Suarez has had his problems with biting and racism, since joining Barcelona he has barely been involved in any controversy. Some thought the combination of Suarez, Messi and Neymar would not work — too many egos, too many personal agendas. For opponents, it has been a question of too many goals with Suarez leading the way this season, scoring 40 in 36 matches.
Inevitably Messi remains the star attraction in a team of superstars. Debates will continue as to who is the best player of all time. Pele, inevitably and rightly, is always mentioned, but we saw so little of the Brazilian apart from World Cups as television was in its infancy during the Sixties. Until he moved to the New York Cosmos, Pele played all his football for Santos in Brazil, never testing himself in Europe.
Diego Maradona must be considered in the equation and like Pele, he has a World Cup winner’s medal,which has so far eluded Messi. Yet Maradona won relatively little at club level — the League Cup with Barcelona, two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup with Napoli. Messi will soon need a museum to accommodate his silverware. He is rewriting the history books with a lot of chapters still to come.
If there is such a thing as the perfect player, then for me it is Lionel Messi. Apart from his breathtaking skill and ability to find space where none is visible, Messi does not dive and when he scores always celebrates with his teammates. No individual me-me-me histrionics that lesser players indulge in.
Messi and Barcelona rarely disappoint; Emirates and England await their next exhibition of fantasy football.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.