Words cannot describe how good a game of football this was.
It was an emotional roller-coaster for Arsenal fans from start to finish: from the prolonged onslaught that Barcelona produced in the first half to our miraculously brave comeback which was completed when Cesc Fabregas hammered home his spot-kick.
2-2 it ended and although we scarcely deserved the result after Barcelona’s superiority in another way we completely did, displaying a never-say-die attitude that has served us so well at times this season.
There are so many things that can be discussed about this game but the main thing to say is that we’re still in it. We shouldn’t be, but we are.
It is a mark of the quality of Barcelona’s performance – and boy were they good! – that nearly every Arsenal supporter will be happy with the result. It leaves us with a lot of work to do in the Nou Camp but in this game logic went out the window and as well as our opponents played, it would not be beyond us to go to Catalonia and score a couple of goals and cause them some real problems.
Arsene Wenger pulled some big surprises in the starting line-up, beginning with Cesc Fabregas as well as rushing Andrey Arshavin and remarkably, William Gallas back into the side. The gamble backfired though as both Arshavin and Gallas were forced off during the first half for Emmanuel Eboue and Denilson, and now face respective three and six-week lay-offs.
Barcelona started this game in such a manner that they threatened to blow us away.
The statistics showed they had had nine efforts on goal and five shots on target in the opening 15 minutes while we had registered precisely zero. That we managed to survive that early onslaught was mainly down to the cool heads of Alex Song and Gael Clichy, the last-ditch defending of Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen and a remarkable performance by Manuel Almunia in goals.
Say what you want about his decision-making shortly after the break but this tie would be over had Almunia not put in such an inspired performance. A superb low save from Busquets early on set the tone and he followed it up with several brilliant stops including a great reflex save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a stunning close-range block on Xavi.
For all of Barcelona’s domination it was amazing that we might have taken a first-half lead on a number of occasions. Samir Nasri shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area, Abou Diaby headed wide from a half-chance while Nicklas Bendtner may well have scored if he had managed to keep himself onside at the critical moment.
Despite being battered from pillar to post and having to make a structural change because of the injury to Gallas (Song was moved to centre-back to allow Denilson into the middle, rather than bringing on Sol Campbell) we managed to get to half-time with our goal intact. It was a remarkable, scrappy, dogged performance that relied on last-ditch efforts and no little amount of luck but we got there.
At half-time I expected the manager to get into the players ears and encourage them to push the Barcelona players higher up the park to allow them less space to dictate the play. And while he may well have said something similar the team talk went out the window when Ibrahimovic waltzed through the offside trap after 20 seconds, Almunia wandered out of his goal and the Swede lifted the ball up and over him to open the scoring.
I would be unfair to say that Almunia undid all of his good work in the first-half with this mistake but with Song covering Ibrahimovic there was no need for him to move off his line. It was a disappointing way to concede, particularly so soon after the break and it got worse when Ibrahimovic scored a second, very similar goal, collected Xavi’s lofted pass to smash home a shot into the top corner.
At 2-0 down at The Emirates I couldn’t help but think about Manchester United last year in the Champions League semi-final. I couldn’t help but think about United in the league. About Chelsea in the league. About our inability to produce the goods against the very best teams in our home stadium. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the supporters in the stadium who were so badly craving a memorable night and had been let down so many times in the past couple of seasons.
What I didn’t expect was that they would get it tonight.
Wenger made the most important change of the night on 65 minutes when he brought on Theo Walcott for Sagna and shuffled Eboue to right-back. The combination of moves gave Walcott licence to have a go at Barcelona’s weakest player, Maxwell, as well as the opportunity for Eboue to drive us forward from deeper positions.
Both players were absolutely vital to our comeback as Eboue’s dribbling and Walcott’s blistering pace put Barcelona on the back foot for the first time. It also got us a goal when Bendtner placed a lovely pass in behind the defence and Walcott stuck it under Victor Valdes, who couldn’t have done any better, to make the score 2-1 on 70 minutes.
Rather unbelievably, the final 20 minutes were virtually all Arsenal. Barcelona made some chances, most notably an opportunity for Messi that was again well-blocked by Almunia. But for the first time in the match we were dictating the game and having more possession of the ball.
With five minutes to go Bendtner cleverly headed down a lofted cross to Fabregas and the captain was brought down in the box by Carlos Puyol. A penalty was given, a red card issued and we were given an opportunity to pull a game that could have been 5-0 after the first thirty minutes back to 2-2. Cesc took the opportunity, smashing his kick into the back of the net to level up the game.
I have many people saying that they didn’t believe that this should have been a penalty and that Puyol was unlucky to be sent off, but I just don’t understand this point of view. It was clear to me Puyol knew exactly what he was doing by placing his body where Cesc was going to strike the ball and the fact that the Barca captain made no attempt to play the ball himself supports that idea. It was a clever foul, if you can call it that, but the referee was right in penalising it and correct in brandishing the red card as he denied a clear chance on goal.
An inspirational Cesc played the rest of the game hobbling (we had already made three substitutions) after hurting himself in the collision with Puyol and the very bad news is that he has been ruled out for the rest of season with a fractured leg. He showed again what a little champion he is by putting in a gutsy and determined effort from start to finish. He rarely got his way among old friends (and the referee, who stupidly gave him a booking that would have ruled him out for the second leg for a perfectly good slide tackle) but he never let it get him down and eventually made the decisive contribution.
With Barca down to ten men for the final few minutes we pushed hard for a winning goal and although we didn’t find it, the final scoreline of 2-2 was brilliant considering the start we had made and the fact that we had come from two down. It was a testament to our mental qualities that we never dropped our heads, that the manager never lost his head and that we still created enough chances to get something out of the game.
While the fallout from the game is massive – to lose Fabregas, Gallas and Arshavin to serious injuries – I’m still hopeful about our chances of winning the league and optimistic about going to Barcelona and causing them some problems. Samir Nasri will be chomping at the bit to make his mark in Cesc’s position and with Song, Clichy, Denilson, Walcott, Eboue and Almunia all having strong games in the first-leg we have enough of a base to build on to be hopeful of doing something special at Camp Nou.
Wenger is a smart manager and he will have noted that a lack of pressure high-up the pitch when Barcelona had possession hurt us and will want that to change in the second leg.
Likewise he will know that we caused them a number of problems: we looked dangerous whenever our players dribbled at them with pace, Bendtner was virtually unstoppable in the air and when Barcelona’s high-pressing game ran out of puff we enjoyed some very nice possession. So there is reason for optimism even if Barcelona are clear favourites to go through.
The final thing I will say today is this: this Barcelona side are the best club team that I have ever seen in my time as a football observer and they were absolutely superb today. If our young squad can eventually replicate their style of play, as is Wenger’s vision, then we’re going to have one hell of a team in the next few years.
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