Is there a more empty and painful feeling in football than thinking about ‘what if?’ when your team has just lost an important game?
Our massive ‘what if?’ moment tonight came when the scores were locked at 1-1 and Tomas Rosicky set Nicklas Bendtner away with only the goalkeeper to beat and Theo Walcott in support. Whatever you think of the Danish striker’s finishing there was no way the ball wouldn’t have ended up in the back of the net but rather cruelly, the linesman incorrectly lifted his flag to indicate offside.
It should have been 2-1, leaving Barca needing to score two goals to knock us out of the competition. Instead it stayed at 1-1 and by half-time the home side had surged into an unassailable 3-1 lead thanks to the brilliance of Lionel Messi.
In fairness to Barcelona we did not deserve to get anything out this game. We also didn’t deserve to get anything out of the last game and when you put those two conclusions together we did not deserve to qualify for the semi-finals.
Barcelona outplayed, out-thought and won the tie in a manner that all Arsenal fans should admire. They are the benchmark for modern football for everything from their positive approach to the game, their ability to maintain possession, their fierce persistent to win the ball back at all costs when they don’t have it, their ingenuity and creativity in the final third and their pragmatism to know the right times to foul to kill their opponents move and the right way to foul to avoid excessive cautions.
They are the closest thing to a perfect team that I have seen in my twelve years as a football admirer.
It was always going to be tough on the night with a number of key names absent: the manager’s decision to start Mikael Silvestre a clear indication that in some areas we were down to our bare bones. The rest of the team was rather predictable as the usual suspects in the back five took their places, Denilson started in the holding role behind Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri and Bendtner lead the line with support from Rosicky on the left and Walcott on the right.
Our plan was to use Walcott and Diaby’s pace on the break and it was a concept that started swimmingly when the Frenchman fed the Englishman and he set up Bendtner who scored after Victor Valdes parried the first attempt. But Barcelona struck back through Messi, took the lead through Messi and then extended it through Messi to go in at the break 3-1 up.
It’s interesting to note that every one of the first-half goals had an element of good fortune about them: Bendtner’s initial shot fell kindly for the rebound; Eric Abidal’s cross was blocked by Thomas Vermaelen but fell kindly for Messi; Samir Nasri’s touch made Silvestre’s clearance difficult on their second and Vermaelen’s headed clearance fell fortuitously to Seydou Keita.
Despite being 3-1 down at half-time I was feeling quite optimistic. I felt our counter-attacking game was working well and if we could just sneak a second it might open up the door for a third. What I didn’t expect was that Pep Guardiola would make his mark on the game with a brilliant tactical move that essentially put the tie to bed.
When Abidal went down with a recurrence of the injury that kept him out the first leg and Maxwell prepared to come on, I had visions of Walcott teasing and tormenting him for the final forty minutes of the game. But Guardiola sensed the danger, brought on Yaya Toure for Bojan Krcic and instructed his team to refrain from pushing as high up on the pitch to retrieve possession, instead allowing our defenders to control the ball and clogging up the midfield.
It completely stifled our counter-attacking game and without a player of Cesc Fabregas’ quality orchestrating things from the middle – Nasri and Rosicky both had poor games – we were not able to pass our way through.
Messi ended the game with a fourth goal late on that showed off his best qualities as a player: exquisite close control, great trickery, dogged persistence and wonderful improvisation to finish between the goalkeeper’s legs. It was a great goal by one of the truly great players currently playing the game.
Despite being unable to get away from our ‘what if?’ moment the fact that we have been knocked out by the best team in Europe, against one of the best teams ever, does make it easier to accept. It was always going to be an unlikely task to go to the Nou Camp and get the result we wanted and we shouldn’t be too hard on our players for failing to achieve it.
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