Amongst those victories was a particularly comprehensive one against Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt. But this was no ordinary defeat. A young man by the name of Carl von Clausewitz served in the Prussian military, and saw first hand the awesome force that was the French army. Clausewitz, of course, would go on to become arguably history's most prominent theorist of war and, in his own way, changed the course of history.
A run of the mill defeat became seminal because of the lessons it imparted on the Prussians, who resolved to imitate the French war machine to beat it. The military was professionalized, and the General Staff instituted. Inculcating patriotism and nationalism became state policy. The levee en masse was imposed. Training was modernized. And meritocracy, rather than background or social position, became the primary way in which the officer class was constituted. The Prussian motto, it seems, was "If you can't beat 'em, be 'em. And then beat 'em."
It worked too. Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, there was no more formidable fighting force in Europe than the Germans. German unification was achieved via a series of victories over France in 1870-1871. It was a most glorious victory; the German Empire was formally recognized in the majestic Hall of Mirrors at the famous Palace of Versailles, home to the French monarchy for centuries. It was the definition of adding insult to injury; a slap in the face that the French would not easily forget.
Why does all this matter? Simple. Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but there is something more functionally important about imitation: it sometimes works.
Which brings us to the Champions League. The obvious question, of course, is whether or not Arsenal can out-Barca Barca. Both clubs subscribe to the "receive, pass, offer" ethic of football, privileging intelligent movement off the ball to create space; neither is particularly physically imposing; both are often accused of trying too hard to pass it into the net; both can get predictable in attack, especially if there is a lack of viable width on offer; both are loathe to lift the ball more than three feet off the ground, and both play flowing, attractive football that fair-minded observers regard as the most pleasing to watch amongst top European leagues. The only problem for Arsenal is that Barcelona do all of that better than they do.
To be clear, I actually don't think this will be a cakewalk by any stretch, as some in the media are implying. For one thing, Barca simply haven't been at their best in the last two months -- the only complete games they've played in that period were the 4-0 wins against Sevilla in mid-January and against Stuttgart two weeks ago. In between we have seen various problems at various times, such as (a) imprecise passing from the midfield, (b) key injuries to Xavi, Abidal, Keita, Pique, and Dani Alves, (c) an over-reliance on Messi, and (d) a lack of movement from Ibrahimovic.
For another, Barca's pressing which works so well against other teams might not work to the same extent against Arsenal because they too are very comfortable on the ball in tight spaces (though I would submit that they haven't yet played a team that presses immediately after losing possession quite like Barca does).
And then, of course, there is Cesc Fabregas, one of the top ten players in the world having perhaps his best season. We are all intimately aware of the personal and emotional ties that both him and Henry will have in these games. Pep Guardiola will have an interesting decision to make with respect to Yaya Toure vs Busquets for this game. He has tended to prefer Busquets this year, despite Yaya offering more of a physical presence and greater athleticism. But in this game, I think Busquets might be a better bit, because he has the ability to harry players in the middle of the park which Barca will need against Fabregas. If he is allowed a free hand, Barca will be in trouble.
All those are important caveats to the promise of Barca winning this tie, but that is all they are: caveats. Look, anything can happen in cup football, especially with the away-goals rule. It takes one mistake, seriously one mistake, and you can be out. Plus, the only teams that seem capable of knocking Barca out of Europe have been English (Chelsea in 05, Liverpool in 07 and United in 08). It's not as if Barca losing is inconceivable.
But it would be surprising, nay, shocking. There is only one Arsenal player that would make it in Barca's first eleven, and that is Arshavin at LW over Henry/Pedro. Their defenders and goalkeeper (Almunia is worth at least one goal over these 180 minutes) are nowhere near as good as Barca's. Also keep in mind that Barca play (and beat) teams like Arsenal very regularly in La Liga, but Arsenal have never played anyone quite like this Barca team. And then there's the little matter of Leo Messi, who might well run riot against Clichy or Eboue or whatever combination Wenger dreams up.
And here's the kicker: Barca haven't been at their best for large parts of this season, but whenever push has come to shove, whenever they have needed a result, they have knocked it out of the park. They will be inspired, they will be pumped, and, I predict, they will show Arsenal how it's done by winning both legs.
Prediction: Barcelona win 5-2 on aggregate
As for the other games, here are my quick thoughts:
United-Bayern: I want Bayern to win because deep down, United are the only team left in the competition that I think can beat Barca (Chelsea and Real were the others). But honestly, they don't have a shot. I mean, I know the Ribery-Robben combination is supposed to be all that, but color me unimpressed. United are simply playing too well in Europe, and with the seconed leg at home, should go through comfortably, I think.
Prediction: United win 3-1 on aggregate
Inter-CSKA: An interesting one, isn't it? The only reason I'm even entertaining the thought of a CSKA win is their funky playing surface and the fact that their season is just getting underway, so they'll be fresher (though the flipside of that is that they mightn't be in a rhythm like some of the other teams). But Jose-coached teams very rarely lose to teams weaker than them on paper, and he'll have his guys prepared. It won't be pretty, but they'll go through methinks.
Prediction: Inter win 1-0 on aggregate
Lyon-Bordeaux: I really have no effing idea. First of all, the only time I watch French teams is in the Champions League, so I really don't feel qualified to speak on them. Second, intra-country ties in the Champions League always end up kind of weird (like the Liverpool-Chelsea goalathon last year -- 12 goals??). I think Bordeaux are the better team overall, but simply on the basis of the last knockout stage, where Lyon dominated Madrid and Bordeaux barely squeaked past Olymiakos, I'm going with Lyon.
Prediction: Lyon win 3-3 on away goals