Someone at UEFA continues to play a sick joke on Arsenal. First they had to face Bayern Munich in the group stage, and now they get another knockout round date with defending champions Barcelona. This is likely to be the marquee tie of the Champions League Round of 16, though no one's expecting it to be a particularly close one.
Reigning champions and current best team in the universe ever, this edition of Barcelona is built around one of the most hilariously overpowered forward lines in the history of the game. You could build a brilliant team around any one of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar; in building his around all three, Luis Enrique has created a direct and terrifying machine that seizes upon any hint of space or vulnerability like a shark. A three-headed shark. A three-headed shark with Andres Iniesta for a brain. Europe, you're going to need a bigger boat.
It's not that they're unbeatable; so far this season they've lost a grand total of twice, to Celta Vigo and Sevilla. It's more that they're nearly unbeatable, and they couple this with what appears to be a terrifying appetite for the big games. Think of last season's final against Juventus, or the first leg of last season's semifinal against Bayern Munich, or the recent Clásico. Three tough opponents. Three big games. And, after 90 minutes, nothing left but three big clouds of blood in the water.
We're tempted to suggest that only two things can stop them. The first is a sudden explosion of serious injuries to, say, two out of those three forwards. That would render them merely very good. The second is the mysterious curse that hangs over the Champions League and prevents any team from winning it two seasons in a row. From where we're sitting, no team has ever had a better chance of breaking that hoodoo.
Key player: Andres Iniesta
Admittedly, we've chosen Iniesta here in part because picking Leo Messi every time becomes very dull indeed. But also because the world's most translucent footballer is this team's captain, on-field leader, and the person most responsible for feeding the ball to the front line. Iniesta, ably supported by Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, provides the platform that allows the three up front to spend all their time gadding about and scoring goals. And isn't that just as important and sexy and glamorous? No? Fine, suit yourself.
This, like many other seasons before it over the last 10 years, was supposed to be the one that Arsenal took a step forward. They very well might still win the Premier League, but any hopes they had of making a deep Champions League run were damaged when they drew Bayern Munich in the group stage. They were always finishing second-best to them, and it has put them in the position to draw Barcelona again.
And yet, the Gunners can be thrilled just to get this far. They needed a multiple-goal win over Olympiacos on the final day of the group stage to get this far and pulled it off in pretty comfortable fashion. And whether they did that or qualified comfortably in second place with 13 points or so, they were going to end up in the same spot.
It's tempting to count them out entirely, given the opposition, but Arsenal certainly have the talent to upset anyone on their best day. Their best performances this season have been truly sensational. But can they find that top gear against Barcelona?
Key player: Mesut Özil
It's tough to overstate just how good Özil has been for Arsenal this season. His 13 Premier League assists are six better than the next best player in the league, and he's chasing down an Arsenal legend's single-season record -- Thierry Henry holds it with 20 in one campaign. If Arsenal are going to score in this tie, there's a good chance Özil will be the one creating the chances.
Oh, poor Arsenal. They were the runner-up no one wanted to draw, but Barca are still very heavy favorites. Perhaps Arsenal can make a great January signing, get healthy, bulldoze their way to the top of the Premier League and start looking like a formidable challenger to the Blaugrana. But there are a lot of what ifs there. Based on the evidence we have, this should be Barcelona by multiple goals.