If Jack Wilshere was wondering whether he had caught the eye of the Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, with his performance in the first leg 20 days' ago then he was left in no doubt yesterday, although the praise he earned will not quite have been what he had in mind.
"Wilshere is a top player and he has been a big, big surprise," Guardiola said. "I didn't know him at the start of the season. In the first leg he had a really good performance. He can be a great player for Arsenal and England, but we have many types of players like him in the second team. He's lucky, as Arsenal have time. There is not the pressure to win titles as quickly as possible. We have second-team players like him."
Ouch. He might have put it with impeccable politeness – and Guardiola spent the next 10 minutes covering his tracks with copious praise for Arsenal – but there was no ignoring the barb. England's next great midfield hope he might be, but there are plenty just like Wilshere in Barcelona 'B' who spend their days playing in the Segunda Division and waiting for their chance.
On Arsenal's big night – and there is no denying how much this means to Arsène Wenger above all – this was Guardiola's attempt to put their new star player firmly back in his place. At just 19, Wilshere might have been excellent in the first leg at the Emirates but this was the Barcelona way of saying that it takes more than one big night in Europe to maketh the man.
Tonight, against the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi on their own turf and with the urgency of a one-goal deficit to overturn, will be a formidable task for Wilshere and his team-mates. Even if they should fail to hold on to that 2-1 lead from the Emirates it would be ridiculous to write off Wilshere. There is still a long way to go but he will have noticed that the stakes get higher with every game.
"All I can say is that I train with Jack every day and he is a special talent," Cesc Fabregas said. "If there are that many players like him in the world then football has a very good future."
One year ago Wilshere was on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Tonight he is up against the best in the world and with a few choice words from the treble-winning coach of Barcelona to try to cut him down to size. That is what a place in the Arsenal midfield can do for your profile.
It was not just Wilshere who found himself the target for Guardiola's asides yesterday. The Barcelona coach, only recently returned from five nights in hospital with a slipped disc, also asked whether or not there was a "special flight" to bring Theo Walcott over at the last minute. He was referring to the late news that Robin van Persie is in contention to play, which seemed to have unsettled Barcelona.
Wenger has sprung a surprise with Van Persie and for Barcelona, a club that is accustomed to being in control of events, it did not go down well. They suspect a conspiracy of misinformation and they may well be right. This is no longer the mutual appreciation society between the two managers it once was. But Wenger recognises that he will have to play every card at his disposal.
The fragile fitness of Van Persie is not to be taken lightly, especially not when Arsenal retain an interest in the Premier League title race. His periods of absence since that initial ankle ligament injury playing for the Netherlands in November 2009 have cost Arsenal dearly – how much they will never know – but tonight Wenger is prepared to roll the dice and push Van Persie back in ahead of schedule.
"Is it realistic to go there and play for a 0-0 from the first minute on? I believe it would be against our nature," Wenger said. "Tactically I don't think it's defendable. We don't have a team of 11 defenders who are happy to defend."
That Van Persie's last significant action was the goal that brought Arsenal level in the Carling Cup final nine days' ago tells you much about how much they need him. After the FA Cup replay against Leyton Orient on Wednesday, Wenger told us that Van Persie would be out for four weeks, at least until the end of the international break in two weeks' time. That is some recovery in the last six days.
Provided that Van Persie comes through his fitness test tonight it would be possible to see him as a late substitute at the very least, giving Arsenal the impetus they need when, as at the Emirates, Barcelona started to flag in the closing stages.
"They [Barcelona] are like us, they like to attack and defend high up the pitch, so for us it's to get through their first pressing and then I believe we have a chance," Wenger said. "The second goal we scored against Barça shows that quite well. The problem we face is to get out of their pressure and to try to hurt them. We can score goals, they can score goals and basically everybody expects both teams to have a go."
Even for a man with as many years in football as Wenger, the test posed by Barcelona looms large. He talks about them with reverence. And beating them represents such an achievement in his mind that Wenger was in danger of getting carried away yesterday when he said: "Anybody who goes to Barcelona and wins, straight away becomes the favourites of the competition because Barcelona are the super-favourites."
Last season at the Nou Camp, Wenger was forced, as he recalled yesterday, to select two left-footed central defenders, one of whom was Mikaël Silvestre. He delayed his decision over whether to pick Sol Campbell until "four o'clock on the day of the game". This time, even without Alex Song and the doubts over Van Persie, he has a more settled approach to the game.
"We have to realise it's a special game but in a special game you don't have to be exceptional – you have just to do your job and then you can become exceptional," Wenger said. "If you go into the game and think you have to do something special you destroy your team play."
But this could not be dismissed as just any old game; "We are playing against the best team in the world so you can't say you go there like we go to play a pre-season friendly at Barnet."
Three key confrontations
Javier Mascherano v Cesc Fabregas
Mascherano has played back-up to Sergio Busquets for much of this season but with his team-mate called upon in defence – in the absence of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol – the combative Argentine will be asked to shield Barça's back line. This particularly entails stifling the creativity of Fabregas. Arsenal's captain has won his fitness battle to play and he will be desperate to shine as he returns to the club where he learnt his trade.
Sergio Busquets v Nicklas Bendtner
Bendtner scored a fine hat-trick against Leyton Orient but has struggled to find his best form against stronger opposition. Robin van Persie is still a doubt to start, so Bendtner will be asked to come up with a repeat of his goal at the Nou Camp in last season's quarter-final. Stand-in defender Busquets is technically gifted with the ball at his feet, but will have to compete physically to prevent the 6ft 3in Dane from imposing himself.
David Villa v Johan Djourou
The Swiss defender faces a sizeable task against Europe's most formidable attack. Djourou has arguably been Arsenal's best defender this season and should have the pace to cope with Villa, but did allow the Spaniard to score at the Emirates in the first leg three weeks ago. The £34m striker averages a goal every other game in this season's Champions League, so much depends on how well Djourou contains him throughout the 90 minutes.Reuse content