It appears that in the general press it has become impossible to judge the performance of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal without a certain level of hysteria. The side are either portrayed as the noble protectors of the beautiful game, or with every passing defeat, a weakly assembled group of nearly men.
Unfair as it may be to paint the red half of North London in these stark terms, the more time that elapses between silverware, the more extreme the reaction to each triumph and relative setback.
It is with this background that Arsenal travel to the home of Europe’s form outfit, Barcelona – in full knowledge that after defeat in the Carling Cup final and being unable to put away an injury-riddled Sunderland at the Emirates on Saturday that another defeat will bring out the old reports of a side not good enough to win the top prizes.
Whereas last year there was a sense that the Gunners travelled to the Nou Camp with nothing to lose, the same cannot be said this time around. Despite enduring similarly painful periods of domination to last season’s first leg, such was the excitement surrounding the Emirates after last month’s triumph that a repeat of last season’s 4-1 hammering at the hands of a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona would be a serious blow to the belief that this current batch of players can bring substantial glory to North London.
There will come a point, be it on Tuesday night or further in the near future, where the labours of Arsenal’s last five seasons since making the Champions League final in 2006, will be judged. An exit from Europe’s premier club competition on Tuesday followed by defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup on Saturday will once again leave a promising season hanging by a thread.
The English and European game has moved on from those halcyon days where teams could put their eggs in one European Cup shaped basket – the last three winners of the competition have also triumphed in their domestic leagues. That Arsenal are again competing in several competitions suggests that this could be the season that they crack the formula on more than one front.
The Barcelona side that will line-up against the one time invincibles have been lost under a deluge of praise over the last two years. However, despite all this, the Catalan giants themselves will understand the importance and significance of this season’s Champions League for their standing in Europe’s pantheon of previous champions. Having failed to deal with the test provided by a combative Inter Milan side in last year’s semi-final, Barcelona will be desperate to reclaim a crown that many purists believe their consistent excellence deserves.
Nevertheless, complete control in domestic competition does not always transfer to the European stage, and it will be here that their legacy will be defined. In 2009, Pep Guardiola’s men were remarkably fortunate to make it past a struggling Chelsea, and were defensively vulnerable to a workmanlike Inter side in last year’s competition.
On top form Arsenal have the ability to be creatively more dangerous than both of these previous obstacles but are less defensively secure – the general opinion being that both sides will be sure to score when they meet on Tuesday night.
No side has won back to back Champions League titles in the competition’s current format, and whilst Barcelona have missed out on completing that feat, another triumph in this season’s contest would go a long way to making an indelible mark on the history books of European football.
Previous teams masquerading as the finest on the continent have often failed to back up an initial triumph with further glory in subsequent seasons – the last decade and a half are littered with examples of sides to have fallen short of multiple titles and the value of their domestic achievements have not been fully appreciated as a result.
Arsenal will not be hoping for such grand recognition. They simply cannot afford the legacy of a campaign that promised so much to be merely a futile victory in one leg of a Champions League last 16 clash – regardless of the opposition.
The key to the game itself is not as simple as a meeting of two clubs’ best assets. Both clubs, perhaps more than any other teams left in the competition, have ghosts to rest and burdens of expectation to bear. It will be he who handles this the best that will advance.
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