Guardiola raises tension by dismissing Wilshere as second team material

Fabregas refuses to bite on Barcelona coach's dig at team-mate / Wenger promises Arsenal will go on the attack in Nou Camp

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Actress isn't a fan of Ed Miliband

Arts and Entertainment
Rooney Mara plays a white Tiger Lily in forthcoming film Pan
filmFirst look at Rooney Mara in Pan
Life and Style

Do you qualify – and how do you get it?

Food blogger and Guardian writer Jack Monroe with her young son
Privately schooled, Oxford educated and a former editor of arguably the world's poshest magazine 'The Lady', it's perhaps unsurprising that Rachel Johnson rarely mixes with ordinary Proles.

The Mayor of London's sister, Rachel Johnson, apologises for shocking tweet about the PM

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital