Champions League – Round of 16 Preview – Part II

by Ger McCarthy

The meeting of Arsenal and Barcelona is the standout tie from the Champions League Round of 16 as two old foes go head to head for a place in the quarter finals of this year’s competition writes BackPageFootball contributor Ger McCarthy.

Round of 16, First leg
Emirates Stadium, London
Arsenal vs. Barcelona

How did they get there?
Arsenal and Barcelona’s meeting in this season’s Champions League Round of 16 is a repeat of the 2006 Champions League decider. The Catalans emerged with a 2-1 victory on that occasion coming from a goal down to claim the top trophy in European football on a rain-soaked night in Paris. The sides are no strangers to one another having also clashed at the quarter finals stage of last season’s competition when a virtuoso Lionel Messi performance inspired Barca to a 4-1 second leg victory to cap off a commanding 6-3 aggregate result.

The Primera Liga giants qualified for the last 16 of this year’s tournament by comfortably finishing top of Group D with four wins and two draws from their six fixtures. Messi leads the scoring charts averaging a goal a game while Pedro and David Villa have also weighed in with important strikes. While the usual suspects of Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Messi continue to hog the headlines it should be noted that Barcelona’s back four has conceded a miserly three goals thus far and will form a menacing barrier for the Gunner’s much-lauded attack.

Arsenal’s progression to the knockout phase of the Champions League has been anything but steady. The North London club’s form fluctuated wildly from the Matchday1 6-0 hammering of Portuguese outfit Braga to consecutive away losses to eventual group winners Shaktar Donetsk and Braga. A Matchday6 victory at home to Partizan Belgrade secured second spot but he Gunners need to improve dramatically to have any chance of knocking out Barca. The goals have been evenly spread amongst the Arsenal squad with Cesc Fabregas knocking in three and Chamakh, Vela, Walcott and Arshavin each bagging braces in the groups stages.

Two players most likely to influence the outcome of the tie

Robin Van Persie

The Dutchman’s return from injury couldn’t have come at a better time for Arsenal. Van Persie’s ability to link the Gunners’ attack with midfield will be crucial in their battle with Barcelona’s star-studded centre-field quartet. True, the striker has completed only one full 90 minutes in the group stages but he marked his appearance with a goal in the 3-1 defeat of Partizan Belgrade. His aerial ability and dead ball skills are certain to test the Barcelona back four so on short, if Van Persie hits form Arsenal’s chances of an upset victory will greatly increase.

Xavi

It is understood by football fans and pundits that Lionel Messi is one of the best players in the world but when Barcelona ‘click’ it is inevitably down to the midfield influence of Xavi Hernandez. The Spanish international remains the fulcrum of the midfield four in the Barca attack. Aptly nicknamed ‘La Máquina’ (the machine), the perpetually passing Xavi is one of the main player’s Arsenal will have to close down in an effort to throw the Catalans out of their usual passing rhythm.

Prediction
It is difficult to look beyond a Barcelona victory over the two legs even though Arsenal are currently flying high at the summit of the Premier League. The Catalans are still smarting for last season’s Champions League exit at the hands of Inter (or more so their manager at the time Jose Mourinho) and will be desperate to at least reach this year’s final. The midfield promptings of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi know have an even more potent attacker to link up with in David Villa and it seems unlikely that Arsenal will be able to keep a clean sheet in either leg.

Writing off the Gunners’ chances would be churlish however as the Premier League side are one of the most feared counter-attacking sides on the continent. If Van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri are fit (and for whatever reason that is always a big ‘if’ when it comes to Arsenal) then Arsene Wenger’s side have a fighting chance. The question marks remain over a porous defence and problematic goalkeeping position though and if there is one side to expose such weaknesses’ it is Barca. The Catalans have also been boosted by manager Pep Guardiola’s decision to commit to a long-term contract in recent days tying the former defensive / midfield star to the club until 2012.

How much Wenger has learned from his tactical error in failing to man-mark Lionel Messi in last year’s quarter-final will go a long way to keeping Arsenal in the tie. With Barcelona currently in devastating form at the summit of the Spanish League then a Catalan win seems the likeliest outcome but expect Arsenal to push them all the way especially with the prospect of playing in a Champions League final at Wembley in their native London.

Round of 16, First leg
Stadio Olimpico, Rome
AS Roma vs. Shaktar Donetsk

Brief Preview
AS Roma take on Shaktar Donetsk for a place in the quarter finals of this season’s Champions League with the Italians having finished runners-up in Group E behind Bayern Munich and Donetsk surprisingly topping Group H (ahead of Arsenal) to make it through to the round of 16 for the first time. Mircea Lucescu’s side lost only once (5-1 away to Arsenal) to make it through to the knockout stages and have twin strikers Eduardo and Luiz Adriano in fine form, netting 6 goals between, the Ukrainians will fancy their chances of making the last 8  in the competition.

Shaktar currently sit top of the Ukrainian Premier League, 12 points clear of nearest rivals Dynamo Kyviv and thus are able to give their full concentration to progressing in this season’s Champions League.

AS Roma qualified for the Champions League round of 16 the hard way with Claudio Ranieri’s men rebounding from a disastrous 3-1 loss at home to FC Basel to remain unbeaten in their final 3 Group E matches and take their place in the knockout phase of the competition.

Club talisman Francesco Totti’s form has been patchy to say the least due to off-field issues and disagreements with the club’s manager and directors but Marco Borriello has picked up the slack to net 4 times and help secure Roma’s date with Shaktar. A recent 5-3 hammering by Inter has seen the Giallorossi plummet to seventh in the Serie A table yet a two-legged victory over Shaktar would revitalise an otherwise flagging season for the Italians.

Prediction
Roma will be anxious to build up a decent lead in the opening match before having to travel to the Ukraine for the second leg where the home side won all 3 group fixtures. The sides last clashed in the 2006 / 2007 Champions League group stage with both teams winning their respective home games.

This year’s round of 16 encounter promises to be close but AS Roma should have enough firepower up front and defensive savvy in the return leg to take their place in the quarter finals.

Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a lifetime spent playing amateur football in Ireland. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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