Arsenal are set to go on the attack at Camp Nou after Arsène Wenger warned that their 2-1 lead over Barcelona is undefendable. As if to reinforce the point Wenger included one of his goalscorers from the first leg, Robin van Persie, in his squad despite the striker suffering what seemed a serious knee ligament injury in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham City.
Van Persie, who is due to have a fitness test on Tuesday morning, and Andrey Arshavin overturned Barcelona’s lead from a David Villa goal at the Emirates three weeks ago, yet Wenger says Arsenal cannot play for a goalless draw. “Yes, we would take that [a goalless draw],” he said. “But it is a little bit of an illusion to go to Barcelona and think they will not score at all. So you have to think we want to score at least a goal.
“Is it realistic to go there to try to play a 0-0 from the first minute on? First of all it would be considerably against our nature and even tactically I don’t think it is defendable. We have not a team with 11 defenders who are happy to defend.”
Wenger, though, is confident of his side’s ability to repel Pep Guardiola’s team despite the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, his first-choice centre-back, and the shaky performance of Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny that led to Obafemi Martins’s winner for Birmingham in the Carling Cup final eight days ago.
“We have to fight against the preconceived ideas because the only way of thinking is that Arsenal cannot defend,” said Wenger. “I will just remind you that in the last 11 games we have seven clean sheets in the Premier League, we have conceded less goals than Man United, who have a very good defence. We can defend when we have to. We prefer to attack that is for sure.”
Four goals from Barcelona’s Lionel Messi knocked Arsenal out last year in the quarter-finals after Nicklas Bendtner’s early goal had put them ahead 3-2 on aggregate but Wenger says his side has improved defensively. “A year ago until 3pm or 4pm, I didn’t know [if] Sol Campbell will play,” said Wenger. “He had played three days before. In the end I decided not to play him because he was tired and we played with two left-footed players in central defence which was not ideal. We are better equipped defensively.
“I am confident that we will have a good game. We play against the best team in the world so, of course, you cannot say you go there like you go to a pre-season friendly at Barnet. But you still think you have a good chance if you play at your best. Confidence will be very important. We have been a bit frustrated lately, more in the Carling Cup than the Premier League overall. This is a game of special circumstances but everybody shouldn’t think too much about confidence and think: ‘Tonight I just want to be absolutely at my best.’
“If you go into the game thinking you have to do something exceptional you destroy your team play. We want to concentrate on our team play, then we can raise our level. The second leg last year was the Lionel Messi show. You can never bet on a poor performance from Messi. That’s certainly one of the keys of the game.”
Last season Arsenal travelled to Barcelona with a weakened side that missed the injured Cesc Fábregas, Arshavin, Alex Song, Van Persie and William Gallas. This year Vermaelen, Song and Theo Walcott are absent but Wenger does not want his side to believe they are cursed. “That would create a complex in the mind of my players. We are good enough to deliver, even with the players who are out,” he said.
Wenger will not take a risk with Van Persie. “He’s here as a player – we have possible test tomorrow and will he be included in the squad or not has not been decided. He has made quick progress. When I spoke to you this morning it was really unlikely for him to travel [but] he wanted to have a go.We will not take a gamble in a game of that importance, of course. He will have to be fit or not fit.
“I’m very bad at mind games – it’s just the whole truth I give you here. The medical staff will assess him. Personally, I would like him to play if possible.”
Fábregas, who passed a late fitness test on his troublesome hamstring before flying to Spain, started his career at Barcelona yet he has never played at Camp Nou. Wenger admitted that his captain, who nearly returned to Barça in the summer, has equal affection for the Catalan club and Arsenal. “We know that Cesc loves this club and that he loves Barcelona as well,” Wenger said. “He has both. It’s normal because it’s his hometown. It’s like a Londoner not to love London. It is part of his life.”
Walcott’s place should go to Arshavin with Samir Nasri switching to the right. Song’s replacement in the holding role is likely to be Abou Diaby.
– Jamie Jackson is the guardian.co.uk’s corespondent in Bacelona