Commentary

The battle heads to Camp Nou

Champions League preview: Arsenal versus Barcelona

Updated: March 8, 2011, 10:49 AM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

BARCELONA -- The first leg of the Arsenal-Barcelona match in London was one of the most entertaining 90 minutes of the season, and hopefully we can all enjoy something similar this Tuesday at Camp Nou. We learned some key things during and after the first titanic Champions League battle that may help shed light on the upcoming clash.

1. Arsenal Overachieved

Since their magnificent, error-free and daring win over Barca, Arsene Wenger's men drew against third division Leyton Orient in the FA Cup after conceding a late goal, only to beat them soundly in the replay match at the Emirates. The Gunners also lost one of the most shocking league cup finals in recent years to Birmingham City, conceding late again after a horrendous error between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny. Their frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland at the weekend, losing a major chance to close the gap on Manchester United, added to the trend.

Nothing can detract from the intelligence and technical excellence of Arsenal's first-leg win over Barcelona. But its real level of play is somewhere in between the two poles of its magnificence in the Champions League and its underwhelming domestic performances.

2. Errors Will Dictate Which Team Wins

Last season, Wenger talked about how his side gifted possession, goals and ultimately the tie to Barcelona after a series of mistakes across the two matches. Barcelona ended up winning by three goals, and it could have been many more. In this season's first match, Arsenal was virtually error free. Indeed, few sides in Europe this season have put together 90 minutes of such smart, well-planned and disciplined football.

By comparison, Barcelona committed more errors in that London match than in the rest of the season combined. Since then, Pep Guardiola's team has gritted its teeth and ground out results -- including a pair of hard-fought 1-0 wins over Valencia and Zaragoza in the last five days -- while coping with injury problems.

Given the talent on these two squads, we'll no doubt see brilliant individual performances at Camp Nou on Tuesday. But it'll be the side that commits the fewest errors that will go through to the quarterfinals.

3. Arsenal Will Probably Need To Score

Away goals count double, so despite the pain of losing in London, Barca already has that coveted tally. On five occasions in UEFA competitions, Barcelona has returned to Camp Nou for the second leg after losing the first game by a score of 2-1. What has happened next? Three times it won on aggregate and twice it was eliminated from the competition. And it's been nine years since Barca went out of a European competition by more than one goal. But given the number of chances it creates and goals it scores -- over 400 goals since Guardiola took over two and a half seasons ago -- it's a safe bet that Lionel Messi & Co. will put more goals on the board at Camp Nou. That means Arsenal will have to score once, probably more, if it wants to progress.

Until he defeated Barca last month, Wenger had no victories in seven meetings with the Catalan side. But it is worth pointing out that on his penultimate visit to Camp Nou was a 1-1 draw, which is a result that would put the Gunners in the next round this time and spark wild celebrations in parts of North London.

4. Which team will deal best with its injury concerns?

Of much greater impact, of course, will be the late fitness tests given to Cesc Fabregas -- who is set to play -- and Jack Wilshere for Arsenal, and that Carles Puyol will be absent for Barca. Every one of the Catalans' defeats this year have come when the captain is absent. With Gerard Pique out and Puyol unfit, Barca are likely to line up Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Eric Abidal, Adriano, Xavi, Javier Mascherano, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Messi and David Villa.

Arsenal is struggling on the injury front, too, as speedy Theo Walcott has been left at home in London. But if RvP passes a Tuesday fitness test, it will be a massive boost to the Gunners, as will the inclusion of Fabregas. He has unbelievable emotional ties to his home club, having never played competitively at Camp Nou. But, like Puyol, Fabregas' ability and leadership is very difficult to replace.

But Arsenal still possesses an outstanding depth of squad. Given how closely matched these two sides are, just one or two key players can be decisive in the outcome.

5. Fans of All the Other Contenders Must Be Praying Arsenal wins

Barcelona is coping with a physical and mental low at the moment because it deliberately plans a time-release fitness program which allows it to peak in explosive power, energy and mental focus during two key periods -- mid-winter and mid-spring. Guardiola's team has also had to put up with injuries to Valdes, Puyol and Xavi -- three absolute lynchpin footballers. Add to that Pique's suspension on Tuesday. If in these circumstances they overturn a 2-1 deficit and power into the last eight, Barca will be viewed as a favorite, if not the favorite, to win the Champions League. It would be Barca's third European crown in five years. You could forgive fans in London, Manchester, Munich and Milan if they are cheering for Arsenal.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.

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