Just a day after Valentine’s Day, football fans can celebrate their love for the game as the world’s most creative, talented, and sexy teams match up at the Emirates Stadium in London. The UEFA Champions League first leg quarterfinal clash between Barcelona and Arsenal will showcase the play-making masterminds of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas, the incisive passing of Xavi and Fabregas, and a chess match between coaches Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola.
The last time the teams met was in the same fixture last year, when Barcelona emerged the victors, 6-3 on aggregate. And aficionados likely won’t forget the 2006 UCL final, where a first-half Jens Lehmann red card and a crafty Henrik Larsen pass dissected Arsenal for a 2-1 Barca victory in Paris. But history aside, the first leg of this cup-tie is sure to be a fast-paced, emotionally-charged demonstration of virtuoso soccer skill.
Players to Watch:
Messi, also known as “the atomic flea,” was single-handedly responsible for Arsenal’s premature exit from the Champions League last year. With an astonishing four goals at the Nou Camp—including a cheeky-as-you-like chip over keeper Manuel Almunia—the little Argentine of mammoth talent sent the London side packing. This year, Leo beat out his two countrymen and Barca teammates Xavi and Iniesta to win his second straight FIFA Player of the Year Award. He has netted 37 goals so far this season in all competitions, including six in his last six Champions League appearances. Pair that with 15 assists to his sprightly strike-partners David Villa and Pedro, and it is clear that Messi is still the most dangerous man in football.
Arsenal’s young center backs, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, may have trouble containing Messi’s superlative dribbling and passing skills. The ease with which he tore through Galctico center backs Pepe and Carvalho in Barca’s 5-0 rout of Real Madrid should be of grave concern to Arsene Wenger.
For Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas achieved hero/martyr status in last year’s semifinal first leg—no pun intended—when he sacrificed his own right peg to a tackle from Carles Puyol, which earned Arsenal a penalty kick. After he converted the kick to tie the game at 2, Cesc limped off the field with a fractured tibia. This year, fully recovered, he’ll surely be plotting his revenge. Fabregas has 9 goals and 11 assists of his own in all competitions for the 2010-11 campaign, but more importantly, he is the play-making engine of the Arsenal attack.
Finally, Fabregas’ outing at the Emirates should be of particular interest amid the constant speculation of a move to Barcelona for the Spanish midfielder. With no silverware to shine at Arsenal, a possible return to his home country, and the prospect of replacing Xavi (who, at age 31, is already an elder statesman by footballing standards) in a side full of his countrymen on the table, this transfer appears likely within the next two years.
Key match up:
Dani Alves vs. Theo Walcott. If Arsene Wenger is wise enough to deploy the fleet-of-foot Walcott on the left flank instead of his normal role on the right, we are in for a treat: constant runs from the blazing Walcott will attempt to burn Alves down the wing, while relentless attacking runs from the Brazilian fullback may keep Walcott conservative. With Nasri sidelined with a hamstring injury, it’s safe to say that at least one of the Barcelona fullbacks will be allowed a lot of real estate.
Last year’s match at the Emirates between these two majestic football clubs proved to be an absolute thriller, and ended in a 2-2 draw. With similar starting lineups from both coaches, can we expect a different result this time around? Barcelona’s form on the road has been flawless this season—they’re averaging 3.6 goals per game away from the Nou Camp. Arsenal are currently second in the more competitive English Premier League, so this match is almost too close to call. However, the attacking triumvirate of Messi, Pedro and Villa for Barcelona will be too hot for the Arsenal defense to handle. My prediction: Barcelona wins 3-1.
Both teams boast some of the most beautiful soccer in the history of the sport, so whichever side you favor, on Feb. 16, it’s joga bonito. The only shame is that it’s only a quarterfinal, and for one team, the Champion’s League romance will end in heartbreak.