Barca continue title defence at old foes Arsenal
LONDON – Barcelona take a 32-match unbeaten run to Arsenal for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Tuesday as the Catalans continue their bid to become the first team to retain the trophy in 26 years.
No team has won back-to-back titles in the Champions League era, with Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering AC Milan side the last to claim consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990.
Unbeaten since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in October, Luis Enrique’s side look well-placed to repeat the feat.
They come into the match at the Emirates buoyed by a 2-1 win at Las Palmas on Saturday that has kept their closest challengers in La Liga at bay, while they boast arguably Europe’s premier marksman in the 41-goal Luis Suarez.
Arsenal’s copybook was blotted on Saturday as they ended a 14-match winning streak in the FA Cup with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to second tier Hull City.
Luis Enrique said Barcelona must iron out some defensive issues that were posed by a creative Las Palmas side, who might have snatched a late equaliser.
The coach will be boosted, however, by the return of defender Gerard Pique, who was rested at the weekend, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets from suspension.
“At some moment, due to attacking, we suffered more counter-attacks than usual and the last 10 minutes were more down to our rivals’ need to equalise,” Luis Enrique said.
The onus will be on Arsenal to get a good home leg result against opponents they have only beaten once in seven Champions League meetings.
To do so, they will have to shackle Uruguay striker Suarez, who opened the scoring against Las Palmas to take his La Liga tally to 25 and 41 in all competitions, while rediscovering their cutting edge.
“On Tuesday night, we’ll need great solidarity because we’ll need to defend well, and make the maximum of our possession,” Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger told the club’s website.
Arsenal rotated their squad for the clash with Hull, leaving out Mesut Ozil who was suffering with an illness and restricting former Barca forward Alexis Sanchez to a late cameo.
German playmaker Ozil will return on Tuesday, as will Aaron Ramsey, and Arsenal will need their big guns in form as their only victory against Barcelona came in 2011 when goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin gave them a 2-1 victory in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
That victory ultimately proved futile, however, as Lionel Messi, who had scored four times to knock out Arsenal in the 2010 quarter-finals, struck twice in the second leg to secure a 4-3 aggregate win. The two sides also met in the 2006 Champions League final, with Barcelona scoring twice late in the second half to win 2-1. -Reuters