x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The challenge of Barcelona's Camp Nou for Arsenal

Playing at the home of Barcelona is a career highlight and the Arsenal players can look forward to the same feeling.

Andrew Cole, right, battles with Barcelona's Michael Reiziger while playing for Manchester United during their 3-3 draw in November 1998, a game which The National's columnist says is one of the top three matches he played in during his career.
Andrew Cole, right, battles with Barcelona's Michael Reiziger while playing for Manchester United during their 3-3 draw in November 1998, a game which The National's columnist says is one of the top three matches he played in during his career.

I can still vividly remember the night I realised one of my football ambitions.

Every child who wants to be a footballer has fantasies of playing Barcelona at Camp Nou. My dream came true in November 1998 when I travelled to Spain with Manchester United and it was one of the highlights of my career.

I know how the Arsenal players will be feeling when they line up on March 8 needing to get a result because I have been there.

The size of the Camp Nou, which held 114,000 at the time, really hit me the night before the match when we trained on the pitch.

The stands seemed to go up and up and up and I wasn't the only one thinking: "This is the big time, as big as it gets."

The mood was good among our players - too good for Sir Alex Ferguson, who told us to stop messing about.

"Focus!" he would shout from the side as he watched us train. That made our silliness worse because there were pitch side adverts for the Ford Focus car. We were young lads and found it sidesplitting. I said to my teammates: "If I score tomorrow I'll run to the Focus sign in the corner and we can all celebrate."

Barca were brilliant then, as they are now. They had the Brazilian Rivaldo, the Portuguese winger Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and a young Xavi, who had made his debut at Old Trafford in the home leg of our group stage tie which we drew 3-3.

Barca were favourites to win the Champions League in their centenary season and they had the bonus of the final being held in their own stadium.

We stood in their way and Ferguson seemed unaffected by the pressure. He insisted that we attacked them. He had been badly stung by a 4-0 defeat there in 1994, when he was forced to rest key players like Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel because of restrictions on foreign players.

He told us that he dreamed of having a team good enough to attack Barca and felt that we were that team. Talk about filling us with belief.

We attacked, but the strategy looked like it was going horribly wrong because Barca went ahead after a minute. Few teams come from behind against the Catalans but Dwight Yorke, my strike partner, equalised in the first half.

Yorke and I then combined and I put United 2-1 up just after half time. I ran to the Focus sign and my teammates joined me. The manager did not have a clue what was going on.

Rivaldo levelled for Barca, before Yorke scored again. Rivaldo and Figo, unquestionably two of the best players in the world, roared back at us. They were true to the philosophy of attacking free flowing football, just as Barcelona will be against Arsenal.

And, just as they will be against Arsenal, they needed to win to stay in the competition.

Rivaldo equalised against us to make it 3-3 and then he hit the bar in the dying minutes. Barca were out. As we walked off the field, Michael Reizeger gave us a look which said, "You've toasted us good and proper".

Yorke and I were on fire that night. We shredded them all night long, found space all over the field and scored goals.

The manager later told us that we had nine clear chances and Barca had 11 or 12.

It was one of the top three games that I ever played in and the draw meant that United and Bayern Munich were through from the group at Barca's expense. We would meet the Germans again in the final in Camp Nou.

Barca will have a few players missing against Arsenal, such as Gerard Pique, but all their big attacking guns are set to play and for that reason I think they will go through.

They only need one goal and they scored four against the Gunners last season at home, just as they have done against strong sides like Bayern and Lyon in recent seasons.

I can't wait for the game because unlike other teams who go to Barca and shut up shop by playing ultra defensively, Arsenal will not change the way they play.

Barcelona never waiver from their attacking philosophy either so I'm sure there will be lots of goals.

Arsene Wenger is a smart manager. Like Ferguson, who was earlier hammered 4-0, Wenger will hope to learn from his experience.

I am sure he will encourage players to attack and continue where they left off in the first leg, especially with Barca potentially weakened in defence.

Will my old club Arsenal have enough like my old club United did to upset Barca?

I am not convinced, but I can't wait to find out.

Andrew Cole is the second-leading goalscorer in Premier League history. His column is written with the assistance of correspondent Andy Mitten