Holders Barcelona are understandably among the favourites for this season’s Champions League, but no club since Milan over 25 years ago has been able to retain the title.
Luis Enrique’s men swept all before them last season on the way to a famous treble and at the end of 2015 they added the World Club Cup to their trophy cabinet again, while Lionel Messi was recently awarded the Ballon d’Or for the fifth time in his glittering career.
Barcelona have been drawn against Arsenal, who they have beaten twice in the knock-out rounds in the Champions League in the last few years, while the Catalan giants have triumphed against English opposition in each of the last two seasons. Barcelona also beat Arsenal in the 2006 final.
The omens therefore look good for the La Liga champions to go deep into the tournament once more. Indeed, the last time Barcelona failed to make it into the last eight or even further was back in 2007, when they were knocked out by Liverpool in the round of 16.
Barcelona’s strike-force of Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar is the envy of world football and the trio have a case to be honoured as the greatest attacking trident in the game’s history. But in order to be given that crown they will have to perform to their best once more on the biggest of stages.
Arsenal’s chances of causing an upset look slim at best and Barcelona will be seeking to gain control of the tie in the first leg, which will take place at the Gunners’ Emirates Stadium in London.
Luis Enrique has not quite abandoned the tiki-taka passing style that was developed by Pep Guardiola, but he has certainly presided over an evolution of Barcelona’s tactics.
The Champions League holders are more direct in their style than they have been in many years, keen to get the ball forward to Messi, Suárez and Neymar at the earliest opportunity.
Barcelona’s dominance of the ball leads to their opposition regularly sitting deep and soaking up play, but Arsenal also prefer to have the ball and that might well suit Enrique’s men. By allowing Arsene Wenger’s team to keep possession, Group E winners Barca might be able to exploit gaps in the Gunners defence with rapid breaks down the field.
Ivan Rakitic was a surprise choice to succeed Xavi in the heart of the Barcelona midfield but the Croatian has proved to be an inspired choice. Still just 27, Rakitic could well be the man in the centre of the Barca team for many years to come. Whereas Xavi was restricted to the centre circle in his later years, Rakitic is a roving presence all over the park and a genuine attacking threat, providing two goals and a pair of assists for a WhoScored rating of 7.27 as Barcelona cruised through the group stage of the competition.
Rakitic is arguably the key man for Enrique’s side but they still have plenty of legends to fall back on. Andres Iniesta’s influence may be slightly on the wane but he remains a mercurial talent on the ball, while the January arrivals of Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan – whose transfers to the Catalan club were delayed due to an embargo – have added even more speed to the Barca attack.
Key fantasy players
Messi will no doubt be among the most expensive daily fantasy football players available in the Champions League this year, but it will be hard to argue that the magical Argentine is not good value. Messi was perhaps better than ever throughout 2015, with Suárez and Neymar helping the 28-year-old to hit new heights. Messi scored three times in the group stage and is battling it out with his great rival, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, to be the competition’s record goalscorer.
If Barcelona are to defend their title, there is little doubt Messi will be at the heart of their success. However, Messi has not scored in six matches against Arsenal’s goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Suárez has proven himself as much more than able backup to Messi in the last 18 months. The former Liverpool man also seems to have put his controversial past behind him and he has settled in well at the Camp Nou. Suarez’s five goals were more than any of his illustrious teammates managed in the group stage and the Uruguayan, who is valued at $9.4K on DraftKings for the game at the Emirates, is often on hand to finish off Messi and Neymar’s best moves. Daily fantasy football players face an unenviable choice between the trio.
Javier Mascherano may not grab the headlines, but he is by far Barcelona’s most important defensive player. While the footballers in front of him hog the limelight, Mascherano is putting in the hard yards at the back and ensuring the team has a solid platform to play from. Mascherano also has a useful habit of coming up with big goals in important moments, so for those whose fantasy budgets cannot stretch to Barcelona’s attacking stars he is well worthy of selection.