Heavyweights collide on huge day of Champions League action
The two biggest clashes in the Champions League round of 16 kick off Tuesday as Arsenal host Barcelona and Juventus take on Bayern Munich. Both games start at 2 PM ET across the FOX family of networks, and are streamed on FOXSportsGo and FOXSoccer2GO.
Arsenal’s game against the consensus best club team in the world is the highlight of the day on FS1, and a critical match for two teams in very different places. Barcelona have got the La Liga race well in hand, helped on the weekend by Real Madrid’s draw with Malaga, while Arsenal are still grasping for the top slot behind a surprising Leicester. Neither team exactly sparkled on the weekend, with a reserve Arsenal side laboring to a 0-0 draw against Hull in the FA Cup; Barcelona clawed out a 2-1 win over Las Palmas in the league to move a commanding eight points clear.
Make no mistake: Barcelona are heavy favorites. Arsenal have lost their last two home and home knockout games against Barcelona and do not look to be firing on all cylinders. Part of Arsenal’s problem is the impotency of their attack this winter. Normally, this is a time of year when Arsenal go from strength to strength, but this year, for whatever reason, their attackers have been misfiring.
Olivier Giroud has not scored in his last seven appearances, Alexis Sanchez looks a player still shaking off the effects of serious injury, and Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck have looked crisp without causing much damage. Arsenal also have an extensive casualty list, with Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Gabriel and Jack Wilshere all out.
The Catalans, on the other hand, have the game’s most vicious attack: the scorching “MSN” trident boasting Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Arsene Wenger was straightforward about the danger the trio pose his side, telling reporters Sunday, “[Barcelona’s forwards] are the most efficient — Messi scored 300 goals in 340 games, I’ve seen many strikers in my life but I’ve never seen a record like that. They are top, top class.
“They have a team that can score at any moment,” added Wenger, “but let’s not forget we have a good defensive record and a great goalkeeper as well.”
Wenger also allowed that his team’s naiveté had hurt them in the past, acknowledging that Arsenal have choked when presented big opportunities.
“Looking recently in these big games, in the first tie at home we can’t be stupid. Many times we’ve won away and at home we’ve conceded. We have to find a good balance between defending and attacking. Individually, all their players are difficult to stop.”
Where Barcelona can be hurt is in the back. While Gerard Pique and Dani Alves are quality, there is a steep drop-off after that and teams that get in behind the back line have found success. Admittedly, those chances tend to be few and far between because of Barcelona’s ball-hog style of play: it is likely they will control 70% of the possession in the match, forcing Arsenal to bunker and counter with Giroud as the pivot man up top.
Even if Arsenal’s odds seem very long, the team is saying all the right things in public. Said Giroud Sunday: “Why not win this game? We have the quality for that. They are favorites but we have a good quality and quantity this year.”
Juventus and Bayern Munich (FS2) should provide a clash of a different order. Runners-up last season, Juve started the season disastrously but have recovered to retake top slot in Serie A. Their long win streak was snapped on the weekend with a 0-0 draw at Bologna, but they have been an impressively tough team this season in Europe, where they have yet to lose.
In fact, in a statistical oddity, Juventus have only lost twice in a 45-game run of European home games that stretches back 12 seasons. The two losses? Both to Bayern, who will feel even with their injury woes that they have the quality and class to overcome the Old Lady in Turin.
Bayern will likely field a makeshift back four given the injuries to Jerome Boateng, Javi Martinez and Holger Badstuber, but full attention will be at the top of the attack where Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller are scoring goals freely. Frank Ribery is now back and fit as well and if Bayern can get into their flow, Juventus are likely to have to switch to a more disruptive style of game.
Both teams have some shared links as well: Arturo Vidal and Kingsley Coman are making their first return to Juve while Mario Mandzukic, expected to be fit for the game, is eager to show Munich what they are missing.
One question for Bayern, so dominant this year in Germany, is complacency. Eight points clear, Bayern have not been seriously tested in months and there is a sense that the league is (and has been) over for the season. Whether or not that plays into Juve’s hands is an open question, but this proud Italian side is unlikely to make it easy for Pep Guardiola’s men.