ARSENAL vs BARCELONA
ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger has hailed Robin van Persie’s sizzling form and backed the Dutchman to deliver as the Gunners prepare for a Champions League rematch with their conquerors of last season, Barcelona.
Van Persie has hit a purple patch since returning from injury, scoring 10 goals in his last eight games, and is poised to lead the line for the north Londoners tonight. The former Feyenoord striker’s lethal touch has coincided with an upturn in the club’s performances, with seven wins and a draw from their last eight fixtures leading them to the Carling Cup final and keeping them in the Premier League title race.
“I’m very happy because I’ve always been a fan of Robin’s. I bought him at a time when not many people were convinced,” said Wenger. “Since Robin has been fit not only has he never disappointed me, I’ve always been very happy to have him here because he’s absolutely a world-class player.”
Wenger insists his team will not be intimidated by universally feared Barca, despite being torn asunder and dumped out of the competition by four-goal Lionel Messi at Camp Nou just 10 months ago.
“We are a stronger team now because this team has attitude, focus and I have not seen many teams with such consistent focus every day to improve,” added the Frenchman, who has Samir Nasri back from a hamstring injury.
“We want to show how good we are. We have practiced. We’re determined, focused and we want to win this competition. We know we face the super-favourites but the only way to do it is to knock them out.”
Defender Johan Djourou does not fear facing Messi, despite his virtuoso display last year. “You have to be excited not scared,” he said. “It is true Messi is good one versus one but we can be hard to beat.”
KNOW YOUR ENEMY: BARCELONA
Barca are five points clear in the Primera Liga and have suffered just one defeat in their last 35 matches. Smash goals aplenty, with 18 and just one conceded in last six games.
Only in his third season as a coach but Pep Guardiola, 40, has already torn up the record books with trophy after trophy. Widely coveted but just signed a new contract.
Perhaps the best midfielder in the world, Xavi is Barca’s heartbeat. His neat, quick and deadly passing game exemplifies their approach.
Andres Iniesta now rivals Xavi for plaudits but works seamlessly alongside him, unpicking defences and making timely darts forward
The biggest jewel in Barcelona’s extravagantly adorned crown, Lionel Messi shows no signs of slowing, with 40 goals in 29 games this term.
Summer signing David Villa spearheads the attack, and the summer signing from Valencia has settled quickly, netting 19 in 28 games.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Guardiola has an almost full-strength squad to choose from for the trip to the Emirates Stadium, with defender Carles Puyol the biggest absentee. His place is likely to be taken by French veteran Eric Abidal, with Maxwell at left-back, although Gabriel Milito is another option at centre-back, with Abidal on the left. Crucially, an attack that averages more than three goals per league game is unaffected, with Pedro set to return after being rested at the weekend.