Wenger urges Arsenal to rise to Barcelona challenge
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Barcelona ‘super favourites’ – Wenger
Arsene Wenger has challenged Arsenal to prove they have what it takes to win the Champions League when they meet favourites Barcelona in the last 16.
Arsenal lost to Barca in the quarter-finals last season but the Gunners boss says his side are now better equipped.
“We are highly motivated to show we are a different team today,” said Wenger ahead of Wednesday’s first leg.
“Barcelona are the best team in the world. If you knock them out you have a good chance to win the competition.”
Arsenal are still awaiting a first victory over the Catalan giants having lost three and drawn two of their five previous encounters.
Wenger’s men held Barca at the Nou Camp in the 1999-00 group stage before losing 4-2 in the return at Wembley (Arsenal played their Champions League home games at Wembley for the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons).
The Spaniards came from behind to win 2-1 in the 2006 Champions League final and the pair faced off again in 2010.
In the first half of the home game last year we were spectators and a little bit inhibited. Now I believe we are a completely different team
Pep Guardiola’s team produced a devastating first-half display at the Emirates Stadium but Arsenal held firm and, despite falling 2-0 behind early in the second, they fought back to secure a 2-2 draw.
The Gunners, missing several key players, took a surprise lead in the second leg but Barca’s class soon told and Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick as they ran out 4-1 winners (6-3 on aggregate).
“Last year they were the better team but I believe in my players, they have the quality 100% to do it,” stated Wenger.
“In the first half of the home game we were spectators and a little bit inhibited. Now I believe we are a completely different team.
“Losing to Barcelona made us better because we came out of the second game with a lot of frustrations after missing the turning point when we were 1-0 up.
“But more than looking at the past we want to show how good we are. We want to win this competition, we know we face the super-favourites but the only way to do it is to knock them out.
“The players don’t deny the quality of Barcelona. What is important is to say ‘look who we are now, we are capable of knocking you out now’. That is our target.”
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Barcelona top La Liga and have been in superb form this season, although they did suffer a blip at the weekend when they needed a sublime late David Villa goal to snatch a 1-1 draw against Sporting Gijon.
That draw ended Barca’s 16-match winning run in the Spanish league and Wenger believed the Londoners could take positives from Barca’s weekend stutter, saying: “It is always difficult after internationals but when you end a series [of wins] it always takes something out of you of course.”
Arsenal are fresh from a commanding 2-0 victory over Wolves last weekend that kept them second in the Premier League, while they also remain in contention for the FA Cup and will contest the Carling Cup final against Birmingham on 27 February.
By the time they played Barca last season, the Londoners had already missed out on both domestic cups and were struggling to keep pace with the Premier League’s top two.
After losing the second leg in Spain, Arsenal suffered three defeats and a draw in their remaining five games of the season to ensure their trophy drought would run into a sixth year.
“We are now a stronger team because we have attitude and I have not seen many teams with such consistent focus every day,” added Wenger.
“We have made our own way by challenging for the title when nobody predicted we would. I believe we are a stronger team because we have attitude and focus.
“We are in ideal condition to face Barcelona. We have the belief and confidence and the players available are close to 100%. That was not the case last year.
“We want to show how good we are. We want to show the belief we have in our game and in our quality.
“Everyone expects an exciting game because it is two teams that play quality football. We want to be faithful to our philosophy and pass the ball well so we can dominate the game.”