The next five days could make or break Barcelona's season. The Catalans play crucial games against Arsenal tonight and Real Madrid on Saturday, though suspensions and injuries to key players have hampered preparations. Pep Guardiola gathered his depleted squad in the Hotel Florida overlooking Barcelona last night, hoping that his side can repeat the magic of the first leg against Arsenal. That game finished 2-2, but seasoned Barca watchers have never witnessed a performance as impressive as their first-half domination in London.
"We were playing the best team in the world. We just couldn't get the ball off them," opined Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's Catalan captain. Guardiola said as much himself, but he knows dominance and pretty football does not win games. He was frustrated that the score was 0-0 at half time at the Emirates Stadium, doubly so when Arsenal scored two late goals to cancel out Zlatan Ibrahimovic's second-half brace.
The return leg has caught the attention of the Catalan public. All 95,000 tickets - including 4,800 to the travelling Arsenal contingent - have been sold and black market tickets are shifting for ?300 (Dh1,485). Eric Abidal, Barca's French defender, realises the importance of the game. "The season is in play this week," he said. "We are the reigning champions in Europe and we will battle hard to retain that title. The Arsenal match is our most important of the season and we cannot afford to falter."
Abidal returned to action in Barca's 4-1 win against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night after two months out injured. Barca finished the game with eight youth team players on the field. Abidal played a part in two of the goals, but admitted that it was difficult, saying: "I was tense at the start and worried that I would repeat my injury, but then I began to improve and play like I had before my injury."
Abidal shares the attacking instincts of Daniel Alves, his opposite full-back down Barca's right flank, and his return has come at the perfect time as the Catalans will be without the suspended central defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. Yaya Toure, who was used as a central defender in last season's Champions League final, is another doubt with a bruised ankle, while Andres Iniesta, their imperious midfielder, has only just returned to full training after a two-week absence.
Ibrahimovic, their in-form striker, will also miss the game after he tore a calf muscle during the warm-up to Saturday's game. Despite Barca's absences, Arsenal remain clear underdogs, though they will be encouraged that they managed to salvage a draw after the wreck of the first half last week. "It was a good comeback," said Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal's Belgian defender. "We showed that we have been mentally strong this season. Barcelona played well. They played their own game and created a few chances. It was difficult for us but if you go in at half time 0-0 anything can happen. We go there with the full belief we can win."
Arsene Wenger's side will also take hope that Barca have failed to win any of their last five home meetings against English sides. Barca have drawn four out of those five matches, though a 0-0 or 1-1 draw would be sufficient to send them through to the semi-finals and a tie against either Inter Milan or CSKA Moscow. The Gunners are not worried by Spain's biggest arenas, having defeated Real Madrid away in February 2006, with Thierry Henry the hero that night. Now at Barcelona, Henry was awarded a rapturous reception when he returned to the Emirates for the first time last week and hopes to feature in what will almost certainly be his last game against his former club.
Arsenal have lost their last two away games in the Champions League against Olympiakos and Porto and face the tall order of getting one of the best results in their history without Fabregas, who even if he had been fit, would not have been able to play against the club he left as a 16-year-old in 2003 as he is suspended. Fabregas is strongly linked with a return to the Camp Nou in the summer. Tonight's outcome may sway his thinking.