15 March 2016

Brace yourselves for a Barça-battering—of the best kind!

Look, I know that we're all battered and bruised and bereft of hope ahead of a fixture that looked likely to result in an historic hiding even at the best of times. To go into the Camp Nou having lost four in a row at home for the first time since 2002 hardly inspires anything remotely resembling hope. If you're anything at all like me, the last few days have been defined by a numbing feeling of disbelief alternating with white-hot flashes of indescribable rage. It's an existential crisis deep enough to belittle any abyss, enough to make one reconsider continuing to be a Gooner or, worse, to start agreeing with Piers Morgan. Despite all of that, however, I believe in something even if it's so ineffable that I can't quite put it into words. Whatever it is—call it naïveté, stupidity, or worse—I think we're going to shock a few folks on Wednesday.

I'm not going to summon up the hoary chestnuts of AS Monaco, Bayern Munich, or AC Milan. If you want to look up the term apophasis, that's your business, not mine. I'm not saying we're going to arrive at the Camp Nou and run riot over our hosts to the tune of an 0-3 victory in order to advance on aggregate. Even for an eternal optimist such as this correspondent, that's a bridge too far. Hell, after a depressing, heart-breaking loss to Watford on Sunday—at home, mind—I even at my sunniest have to wonder if we can keep this vaunted Messi-Suarez-Neymar Axis in the single-digits.

That's when it hits me—part and parcel of our problem has been our propensity to play up to, or, in the case of Watford, down to the level of our competition. Maybe it's problem of intensity, maybe of self-confidence or of insecurity. Whatever it is, there's something in it. We went down 0-2 to Watford. On the other hand, we went into White Hart Lane against in-form Tottenham, went down a man, and still found a point against long odds. We lost at home to relegation-threatened Swansea. It goes on and on. Our maddening inconsistency seems to stem in large part from our inability to summon the requisite intensity despite or, indeed, in spite of the opponent. Take the last five minutes against Watford. Had we played against them like that for something more like 20 minutes, we'd be through to the FA Cup semifinal. Instead, we've crashed out after switching just twice too many times against an inferior opponent.

By helpful contrast, look at how well we played against Barça in the first leg. For 70 minutes—for 70 full minutes, we held one of Earth's most frightful attacks ever to a virtual standstill. If we play against Barça on Wednesday the way we played against Watford on Sunday, yes, we'll end up the same way Getafe did—on the wrong end of a 6-0 scoreline. However, this squad, for better or for worse (in equal measures, it seems) plays to the level of its competition. That's not to say that they'll emerge victorious. Far from it. I don't put much stock in moral victories, but I do believe that we'll win on Wednesday. Not by enough to advance, though. We just wouldn't be Arsenal if we did.

No, instead, I see us doing just enough to win or maybe draw. After all, Barça have bigger fish to fry, not that you'd know it from the competition they face in La Liga. If anything, boredom might offer a tougher challenge than any opponent they'll face on the pitch. In other circumstances, we might look ahead to our opponents' fixtures to see how they might marshal their resources, but against this Barça, that's beside the point. Who can rival them in La Liga? No one. In the Champions League, needing only to do better than an 0-3 scoreline, they'll likely let the cruise-control kick in. That jaded indifference might be the most we can hope for, given the jaundiced performances of our own squad of late. If ours can summon any of the determination shown in the first leg, we might just witness a rousing performance, one good enough to resurrect some kind of hope for the Prem run-in.

That's about the best that we can hope for.