BARCELONA: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admitted his side face an almost impossible task when they travel to face a red-hot Barcelona on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) looking to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit to reach the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in six years.
As so often in the second half of Wenger’s 20-year reign, Arsenal will travel to the Camp Nou with a sense of what might have been.
They had their chances to lead at the Emirates three weeks ago before Barca’s brilliant forward triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez cut through them with an unerring ease they have made routine.
Messi, Neymar and Suarez have scored a combined 103 goals this season, Arsenal’s entire squad a mere 71.
Top of the list of Wenger’s detractors has been his inability or unwillingness to splash out on the top-class striker needed to turn Arsenal from perennial pretenders into winners.
Yet, he tried to land Suarez whilst the Uruguayan was still at Liverpool in 2013.
In a tale of Arsenal’s penny-pinch culture under Wenger, they infuriated Liverpool by launching a bid one pound over Suarez’s reported £40 million buyout clause.
“What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?” Liverpool’s American owner John W. Henry famously replied on Twitter.
Even more damming for Arsenal was that Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard managed to talk Suarez into staying for an extra season at Anfield by telling him he was “too good for Arsenal” and that his move to Barcelona would come.
Gerrard was proved right. Inspired by Suarez’s 31 Premier League goals, Liverpool agonisingly just missed out on their first title in 24 years.
At the same time Barca had just suffered their first trophyless season in six years.
Suarez then bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup, the third time he had bitten an opponent in his career, sparking widespread condemnation and a four-month ban.
Yet, whilst others dithered, Barca pounced, eying exactly Suarez’s aggression as the tonic to revitalise the squad already blessed with the talents of Messi and Neymar.
“During the negotiation process the incident with Chiellini happened and provoked a lot of doubts in clubs that wanted to sign him because they questioned his character and didn’t know the severity of the ban,” Barca’s then sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta told Marca.
“I thought that was the ideal moment to accelerate the process of his signing.”
Arsenal benefited in their own way from Suarez’s move as they snapped up Alexis Sanchez as Barca sold the Chilean to balance the books.
Yet, by swapping Sanchez for Suarez, Barca again demonstrated that they shop in a different market to Arsenal and haven’t looked back since.
Sanchez won two major trophies in three years at Barca, coinciding with the Catalans only three-year drought in winning Champions League in the past decade.
His 47 goals in 141 games were a respectable return, but Suarez has already struck 67 in 84 appearances, won a treble and has Barca on course to repeat that feat this season.
“Suarez gives Barca the aggression that is so important in the attacking third,” Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone said after seeing his impressive record against Barca turned upside down since Suarez’s arrival.
Most importantly of all, Suarez has managed to succeed where other great strikers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa have failed in dovetailing perfectly with Messi.
“Our relationship on and off the field is very good,” Suarez told La Vanguardia.
“We all know Leo is the best, none of us try to beat him or even equal him.”
Yet, on goalscoring terms at least, Suarez has surpassed Messi this season with 42 in 41 games to the Argentine’s 36 in 36.
Stopping one is difficult, stopping all three of the South American trio has been an impossible task in the past 18 months.
Arsenal could have had Suarez on their side. Instead, when they line-up on Wednesday, they will likely be made to suffer and wonder what could’ve have been once more.