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Monday 14 February 2011

Who The F*** Are Barcelona?

With the two legs against Pep Guardiola’s Barca, a side that’s widely perceived as the paradigm of the beautiful game, sandwiched between domestic gaucherie, but no less season defining games against the likes of Wolves, Leyton Orient, Stoke & Sunderland (not to mention the trifling matter of a trip to Wembley, for an opportunity, no matter how meretricious, to win our first trophy in five years), I guess we’re set to witness the entire wonderful panoply of the footballing spectrum over the coming weeks. I for one am salivating at the prospect.

Despite the significance of our glamorous encounter with the Catalan giants - as the litmus test that will either provide le Gaffer with incontrovertible grounds to continue blowing the Gooner trumpet, or which, heaven forfend, might only accentuate his obstinate obsession with blowing smoke up our backsides – the surrounding fixtures might not hold the same fascinating allure, but are likely to be no less demanding dust-ups.

There’ll be much dancing in the streets should we manage to stifle Messi and co. over the course of our two games. But it don’t really mean a thing unless we can also eliminate the lapses in concentration and the sort of naivety that can be undone by the pandemonium of Delap’s penetrating Yorkers, or Zigic’s growth hormone excesses. It’s the “horses for courses” astuteness of managers from these shores that makes for such competitive fare and a far less predictable brand of football than the two-team tyranny of La Liga.

However, if the Arsenal are to aspire above and beyond Birmingham and the Cup of many beverages this season, then we must show our mettle as a winning machine; a side that can prevail under any circumstances. Up until now, it’s been our inability to really convince as team capable of relentlessly notching up the victories that has most Gooners merely feeling grateful to have arrived on Spring’s doorstep with everything still to play for.

Yet with each passing week, so long as the Gunners maintain the Premiership pace, ahead of the chasing pack of Champions League contenders and close enough to the leaders to be able to pounce on further fallibility from Fergie’s troops, even the more skeptical amongst us are struggling to keep our expectations in check, trying to stave off tantalizing thoughts of a nip and tuck challenge for the title, until we’re certain of our Championship credentials and we’ve rounded the bend into the finishing straight. After all, it wouldn’t be the first false dawn we’ve suffered these past few seasons.

With Van Persie hitting a long overdue purple patch, Fabregas playing like a man possessed by a ravenous appetite for success (even if he’s inspired by a desire to discharge his obligations to Arsène, by securing the silverware that would enable his exit from the Gunners in all good grace?), Nasri on the mend and kicking in with the sort of sublime gifts that we’ve not enjoyed since the best of Bobby Pires and Jack Wilshere intent on fulfilling the promise of a positively mouth-watering homegrown garnish, the Gunners have no cause to fear Barca, or, for that matter, any of the multi-million pound collections of mercenaries on the planet.

From 1 to 11 (or to 53, as is the hare-brained habit in shirt-number bingo nowadays) we’re a match for anyone on our day. It’s beyond that where our limitations might be exposed, with no obvious stand-in for the likes of Song, in the pivotal protection of two centre-backs who’re short on the sort of experience that equips a defender with genuine authority, or a Robin to Van Persie’s Batman, with an equally prolific strike-rater as the injury prone Dutchman. At our trophy-winning best, Wenger was able to seamlessly slip in replacement squad members with no obvious impediment to the team. Whereas until the likes of Denilson, Diaby, Chamakh & Bendtner prove they can cut the Wenger-ball mustard, I can’t help but feel that our challenge rests on the all too precious few.

It could be argued that we’ve a better chance of surprising the Spanish champs at this stage in the competition, before Barca get a scent of the trophy at the business end of the tournament. Personally, I’m eager to see us prove how far we’ve progressed, from the abject humiliation of last season’s defeat and with my trip to the Catalan capital long since booked, I will gladly settle for the Gunners travelling to Spain in three weeks time still with something to play for.

What’s more, there’s no telling the sort of confidence boost we might benefit from, so long as we leave the field with our heads held high on Wednesday night, with the swagger of a team that’s taken on the world’s best. Every connoisseur of the beautiful game will be looking forward to the promise of a footballing extravaganza. Although I have to admit that the experience will be a whole lot less stressful, if Spurs have succumbed to AC Milan in the San Siro because my only real fear from Barca, is the ignominy I stand to endure should we end up exiting the Champions League prior to our covetous North London neighbours.

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