Without discounting the importance of the three other second-leg matches of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, it would not be unfair to suggest that most eyes will be fixed on the Camp Nou this week for the sold-out encounter between Barcelona and Arsenal.
Although this is the second consecutive year that these teams have met in the knockout stages, the context is slightly different to last season, when Lionel Messi scored all four in a resounding 4-1 win for the Catalans. This time around, an injury-hit Arsenal will take to the pitch with a one-goal lead that could prove crucial in the final analysis.
Both AC Milan, who take on Tottenham at White Hart Lane, and Roma, who play away at Shakhtar Donetsk, will attempt to restore the reputation of Italian football, whose three representatives all suffered surprise first-leg losses at home. Finally, Spanish goal machine Raul, whose scoring touch has not deserted him since joining Schalke in Germany, will aim to put paid to the hopes of a Valencia side looking to relive past glories in this tournament.
The Gunners did not prepare for their upcoming clash with Barcelona in ideal fashion, labouring to a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland on Saturday. With Theo Walcott and Alexandre Song sidelined through injury, and doubts hanging over the participation of Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere, Arsene Wenger does not have his troubles to seek.
Barça have problems of their own. Coach Josep Guardiola was admitted to hospital last week with back pain, and for the visit of Arsenal he will have to make do without the services of the suspended Gerard Pique and the injured Carles Puyol. Consequently, Sergio Busquets may drop back to partner Eric Abidal in defence, with Javier Mascherano replacing the Spaniard in midfield. As for the indefatigable Messi, he will be determined to make up for his subdued first-leg performance at the Emirates.
The other matches
The statistics do not bode well for AC Milan in London: the Italian club have won just one of their last 14 competitive matches in England, while Tottenham have picked up victories in all four of their home games in the Champions League this season. Although a draw is all that Spurs require to progress, the signs point to an open match, given the return to form of Jermain Defoe, the return from injury of Gareth Bale and Harry Redknapp’s tendency to view attack as the best form of defence, .
However, Rossoneri supporters will take comfort from the defensive lapses exhibited by Tottenham in their 3-3 draw at Wolves on Sunday, aware that in players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their team has the firepower to punish similar slip-ups. Milan will try to win the all-important midfield battle without their suspended captain and midfield engine, Gennaro Gattuso, scorer of the winning goal against Juventus at the weekend.
Roma’s performances may have improved since the arrival of Vincenzo Montella at the helm, but the task facing the Giallorossi in Ukraine remains considerable. Shakhtar Donetsk hold a 12-point lead over nearest domestic challengers Dynamo Kiev, and their European form has been equally impressive. Like Bayern Munich and Chelsea, the Ukrainians have won six of their seven Champions League matches so far. Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu, who recently signed a two-year extension to his contract, is therefore unlikely to set out his team with the sole objective of defending an aggregate lead.
Roma must attack, and have proved in the past that they are never more dangerous than when their backs are against the wall. To achieve the victory they need, they will have to avoid the occasional drops in tempo that have cost them dearly this season.
Arguably the most open of this week’s second-leg ties, this match could well be decided by a moment of individual opportunism, something that Raul, the all-time leading goalscorer in European competition, has made a career out of. The away goal that broke that record is the same one that gives Schalke, currently lying in a disappointing mid-table position in the Bundesliga, a slight advantage over their Spanish opponents.
But Valencia, who occupy a creditable third place in La Liga, albeit far behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, showed at the weekend in their 2-1 triumph away to Mallorca how effective they can be on the counter-attack.
Player to watch
Douglas Costa is the latest major talent to emerge from Shakhtar Donetsk’s list of Brazilian imports. Having arrived from Gremio in January 2010 with a striker’s reputation, the 20-year-old was switched to a role of attacking midfielder by Lucescu. Equipped with a shot of considerable power, as Roma found out to their cost during the first leg, he also possesses the graceful touch typical of so many of his countrymen.
What they said
“When you have that advantage in a two-legged game, if you think you’ve got it won, then you’re in trouble. It’s not natural for us to sit on a 1-0 lead for 90 minutes. We will pick an attacking team and have a go at AC Milan,” Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp.
Have your say
Will any of Italy’s three representatives, who all fell to first-leg defeats at home, manage to qualify for the quarter-finals?