Messi set to upstage Henry on Arsenal return

LONDON - Arsenal will fight fire with fire on Wednesday when Barcelona arrive at the Emirates for the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final that has had football fans salivating since the draw was made.

Manager Arsene Wenger is sweating on the fitness of captain Cesc Fabregas for the visit of the European champions, the former Barcelona youth team player troubled with a bruised knee, but whichever side he sends out will be one selected to maximise their own weapons rather than muzzle Barca.

World Player of the Year Lionel Messi is in outrageous form, scoring 11 goals in his last seven matches for Barca and the Argentine wizard will be relishing the prospect of the wide-open spaces of the lush Emirates pitch which has witnessed some breathtaking Arsenal displays this season.

With Thierry Henry, scorer of a club record 226 goals for Arsenal, back "home" for the first time since leaving for Barcelona in 2007, and Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in form, the Gunners face a huge task but one their vibrant form in Europe suggests is not beyond them.

Losing Fabregas, who has scored 18 goals this season in all competitions, would be a major blow, but he was missing in the last round when they beat Porto 5-0 thanks to a Nicklas Bendtner hat-trick and superb performances by Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin.

While mindful of the fact that Messi, who missed the 2006 Champions League final triumph against Arsenal in Paris because of injury, could single-handedly destroy his side's ambitions, Wenger said no special measures will be taken for a player who has been almost unstoppable of late.

"Once you start to man-mark one, it can work but in exceptional teams you have two or three you have to man-mark and then you have to go to a system where you could create your own problems just by following somebody everywhere," Wenger told Arsenal's website.

Arsenal's Premier League title hopes took a jolt on Saturday when they conceded a last-gasp equaliser at Birmingham City that left them four points behind Manchester United while Pep Guardiola's Barcelona stayed neck and neck with Real Madrid with a 1-0 win in Mallorca.

Henry's return promises to be an emotional one after Arsenal fans recently voted him the most important player in the English club's history.

"I am very emotional but also keeping calm. It will be a strange game for me," the France striker told Barca TV.

"Before the draw I said I did not want to meet Arsenal. That was my wish. But now it is what we have been given and we will have to be at our best."

Henry may have been the unquestioned leader at Arsenal but he has only played a marginal role at Barca this season, left firmly in the shade by Messi's exploits.

"What Leo does is difficult to find in any other player," Henry said.

"The other day (after Messi scored a stunning goal) I held my head in my hands because I didn't know how he did such things. I received a load of messages asking if he was human. At times I ask myself the same question."

Messi's headline-grabbing displays have tended to cover for some laboured displays by Guardiola's team, who have failed to match the standards of last season over the last month.

Barcelona will have to do without Andres Iniesta for the first leg after he suffered a hamstring injury at the weekend, although he is expected to return for the second leg.

On Monday, defender Gerard Pique trained apart from the rest of the group but is expected to be available, while left back Eric Abidal returned to training for the first time in over a month after injury.

Probable teams:

Arsenal: 1-Manuel Almunia; 3-Bacary Sagna, 31-Sol Campbell, 5-Thomas Vermaelen, 22-Gael Clichy; 8-Samir Nasri, 4-Cesc Fabregas, 2-Abou Diaby, 7-Tomas Rosicky; 23-Andrei Arshavin, 52-Nicklas Bendtner

Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Daniel Alves, 3-Gerard Pique, 5-Carles Puyol, 19-Maxwell; 6-Xavi, 15-Seydou Keita, 24-Yaya Toure; 10-Lionel Messi, 9-Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 17-Pedro

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