Arsenal host Monaco in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie and can expect a tough test from the French side as the Gunners look to banish their last-16 hoodoo.
Arsenal have been knocked out at the last-16 stage in each of the last four seasons after coming up against Bayern Munich twice, AC Milan and Barcelona. Being drawn against Monaco is perhaps the kindest they have received in the last four seasons but they are no pushovers.
In fact, the French side have only lost one of their last 17 in all competitions and are fourth in Ligue 1. Despite that, in what is the first-ever competitive meeting between the two sides, and Arsenal are the favourites to win at the Emirates.
Arsenal have a good record against French teams having not conceded in three games against French opposition at the Emirates. However, Monaco have the potential to test the Gunners and there are key battles that could decide the outcome of this game.
Sanchez vs Fabinho
The first involves Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez and Monaco defender Fabinho. Sanchez has played a vital role for Arsenal this season and has proven to be a signing by Arsene Wenger providing 17 goals and eight assists for the Gunners.
The Brazilian, Fabinho, has had a good season at Monaco so far and has shown that he can defend just as well as he can attack. The 21-year-old, in typical Brazilian fashion, loves to get forward and is quite technically gifted as he showed when he scored against Zenit Saint Petersburg earlier on in the competition. So Sanchez is going to have work back as well as he goes forward to stop the full back.
However, it is unlikely that the young defender has come up against a player with the talents that Sanchez possesses in Ligue 1 so he will be pushed to the limit in this battle. Sanchez, who is good with both feet and lightning quick, can be a nightmare to defend against so Fabinho is going to have be on the top his game to stop the Chilean influencing this game as much as he has in previous games for Arsenal.
Coquelin vs Kondogbia
Another key area that will have an influence on this game is in the centre of midfield. Francis Coquelin and Geoffrey Kondogbia will likely occupy the defensive midfield position for their teams and will be vital in nullifying attacks from their opposition.
Coquelin has recently established his place in Arsenal’s midfield after giving impressive performances against West Ham and then Manchester City. He hasn’t looked back since cutting his loan spell with Charlton short and has been a shining light at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. A recent performance against Leicester showed how good he is at cutting out attacks before they even get started.
Similarly with Kondogbia, the midfielder played in Sevilla for a year before returning to his native France to play with Monaco and has impressed this season. Just like Coquelin, the 22-year-old is very good at intercepting passes, starting attacks and stopping counter-attacks before they get going. He will provide protection for the Monaco defence and will help combat the talented Arsenal attack of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
The defensive midfielder for either side could have a huge influence on how this game turns out depending on how they play. If they both play as well they have been lately, it will be very difficult for either side to play through the middle and will force them to use the wings, which could actually suit both teams.
Cazorla vs Moutinho
The final area of importance will be in the middle again. This time it will revolve around the two teams’ playmakers. Santi Cazorla and Joao Moutinho are the two players that get the ball rolling for their teams and have the ability to shape the outcome of any game.
Cazorla is playing some great football at the moment and has been enjoying one of his best seasons for the Gunners scoring seven goals and creating eight for other players. The little Spaniard will be the one that Arsenal rely on to get them on the front foot. He is one of the best players Arsenal have on the counter-attack and can punish teams with his exceptional range of passing and expertise from dead ball situations.
Moutinho is a similar player and one that Arsenal have been linked with for some time. Moutinho is good defensively as well as being technically gifted allowing him to work in tight spaces and play his way out of trouble.
The Portuguese international came back from injury at the weekend and will be pivotal for Monaco as he provides them with a starting point for their attacks and he can also be clinical in the final third.
Those two are capable of running a game all by themselves and both teams will rely on their midfield maestros to create the chances their forwards need.
Importance of the strikers
Obviously there is no denying the importance of the two strikers for each side as Olivier Giroud is playing with great confidence at the moment scoring seven times since returning from his injury. Although his Champions league record isn’t great, with only five in 17 appearances, you wouldn’t bet against him scoring an important goal for Arsenal.
Dimitar Berbatov will likely lead the line for Monaco and he will be looking to get on the scoresheet against his old rivals. The striker spent time at Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United and showed his class while in the Premier League. Although he is not the most mobile of strikers, he is very clever and is prone to producing moments of magic when least expected.