John Giles: Gunners face a step too far
On-form Barca just can’t be contained
ARSENE Wenger has never been so bold about his claim for this group of Arsenal players. As good as Barcelona? I don't think so.
Fair play to him, he is radiating confidence and belief at the time when all good managers should and he is right to say that the Gunners are a different side from the one beaten by Barcelona at the quarter-final stage of the Champions League this time last year.
I'm sure he genuinely believes that his players are good enough to beat Barcelona and that they learned some bitter and valuable lessons from their experience 12 months ago.
Players who were young have matured that bit more and Robin van Persie has been able to put a run of games together without injury.
He's scoring goals, too, and looks like a threat at all times. Wenger will have his fingers crossed very tightly indeed in the hope that Dutchman will remain hale and hearty until the end of the season.
He has certainly improved the range of options available to Wenger and there have been other big pluses so far this season. Jack Wilshere's emergence is significant and Sami Nasri is in the form of his life.
At the heart of it all, Cesc Fabregas remains a formidable leader of the team. These are all good reasons for Wenger to be confident that he has done his job and improved the Arsenal squad in the last year.
But Arsenal need to be better than Barcelona to win this tie and I don't think they are good enough to do that.
It's a simplistic comparison but if Fabregas, Wenger's inspiration and midfield general, was a Barcelona player right now, I'm not sure I can see a place for him in the team.
I'm not saying Fabregas is a bad player – I'm saying that Iniesta and Xavi are better and for much of the World Cup in South Africa, the Spanish team reflected the same.
Wenger's biggest problem is at the back. He still has not addressed this issue and he has already been punished in the Premier League on a number of occasions this season.
I would include his goalkeepers in that even though we haven't seen any major clangers for a while now.
But a defender can score five own goals in a season and, within a year, be nothing more than statistical footnote. Goalkeepers who mess up badly and publicly often carry that reputation for life.
Barcelona too can be exposed at the back but you need to be a very strong team indeed to own the ball for long enough to exploit this weakness.
When Iniesta and Xavi pull the strings and Messi is on his game, I'm not sure there is a way of containing them.
If that Barcelona shows up at the Emirates Stadium tonight, Arsenal will do very well to carry a lead into the return leg.