On the 28th of April, 2010, in the second leg of the semi-final of last season’s Champions League, Inter Milan played Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
Taking a 3-1 lead into the game, the Italian side defended impeccably throughout the match until, in the 84th minute, Gerard Piqué scored to put Barcelona within one goal of qualification. Then, two minutes into stoppage time, Inter defender Walter Samuel played the ball into Yaya Toure’s stomach, it rebounded into the path of Bojan Krcic and the Serbian lashed the ball past the goalkeeper to put the home side through.
Or so, for a split second, they had thought. But on account of the referee deciding — absolutely incorrectly — that Toure had handled Samuel’s attempted clearance, the goal was chalked off.
The decision meant that Inter Milan, who played with 10 men for over an hour after Thiago Motta’s sending off, achieved only 25% of possession and ended the game with just one attempt on goal — off target, for the record — won the tie and progressed to the final. There José Mourinho’s side, a team he admitted “didn’t want to have the ball” against Barcelona, beat Bayern Munich 2-0 to win the European Cup for the first time in almost forty years.
At the time Guardian journalist Richard Williams called Inter Milan’s performance against Barcelona “a victory for a rearguard tuned to near-perfection: a virtuoso demonstration of the Italian defensive arts”.
Fast forward to the 8th of March, 2011, where Arsenal took a similar lead into their second round away leg against the team that Inter Milan had knocked out almost eleven months earlier.
A similarly resilient first half performance from the English side restricted Barcelona to just one shot on target in the opening 45 minutes of the game, yet the home side capitalised on a Cesc Fabregas error in first-half stoppage time to take a 1-0 lead.
Despite not having an attempt on goal, Arsenal leveled the game just seven minutes into the second half as Sergio Busquets headed into his own net, leaving the aggregate score at 3-2 in the English side’s favour. At this point Barcelona required two more goals to knock out an Arsenal side that had defended every bit as resolutely as Mourinho’s Inter and were surely boosted by the fact that they, rather than Barcelona, had finished the stronger in the previous encounter between the two sides.
But three minutes after scoring, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and subsequent sending off for playing on and shooting after being flagged offside. Despite the Dutchman’s vehement protests that he did not hear the sound of the referee’s whistle above the noise of a packed Nou Camp, he was heartlessly dismissed.
The decision turned the tie in Barcelona’s favour, allowing them space to develop their relatively tempered attacking attempts into irrepressible waves and they got the two goals to register the 3-1 score they required to progress.
Over the course of the 90 minutes Arsenal failed to register a single attempt on goal and managed just 32% of possession. But over the course of 180 minutes they only lost the tie by one goal and, but for a refereeing decision that changed the complexion of the contest, may well have progressed through to the quarter-finals off the back of an organised and efficient defensive performance.
Yet the same Guardian journalist who covered Inter’s progression eleven months earlier, that man Williams, remarked that Arsenal’s inability to register a shot on goal meant “dismay and perhaps even a measure of shame are the proper responses to such a lamentable feat”.
The similarities between the two games are remarkable. The sparsity of attempts on goal and the enormous lack of possession by Inter Milan and Arsenal indicated what a difficult team Barcelona are to play against at the Nou Camp. Yet while one away team received a helping hand from the referee to turn their dogged defensive display into a monumental, history-making night for their club, the other was on the receiving end of a bad call at a significant moment.
But the most amazing, ironic, almost unbelievable link between the two games came via the ITV Sport commentary that covered the reaction’s to Bojan’s disallowed goal: “You know, I’m not surprised the players couldn’t hear the whistle Clive, because it really is deafening here.”
The conclusion to make from all this is quite simple: football is a game of fine margins and it hinges on moments like Bojan’s goal and van Persie’s red card. Barcelona are a wonderful football team, easily the best I have ever seen, thoroughly outplayed both Inter Milan and Arsenal and deserved to win both ties.
But deserving to win and winning are two completely different things and just as Barcelona were dreadfully unlucky to be knocked out against Inter Milan last season, so Arsenal — despite being forced into a brand of football that was not in keeping with their ideal vision of the game — were in their own way unlucky to suffer a similar same fate.
The difference in tone between Williams’ interpretations of Inter Milan’s “success” and Arsenal’s “failure” is symptomatic of the modern football fan — and in this case, the modern journalist — looking to attach meaning where there is little meaning to be found. How two such similar games could be viewed so differently by the same person, simply because one team won and the other lost just boggles the mind.
From an Arsenal point of view, being dominated by one of the greatest sides to play the game does not make them a bad side. On the contrary, winning the first leg and defending as commendably as they did until van Persie’s sending off and only losing the tie by one goal suggests that they are a very good side indeed. One only needs to look at Real Madrid’s 5-0 defeat at the same stadium earlier in the season to see how ordinary Barcelona can make a good side look.
Arsenal might have rode its luck in many respects but at the end of the day — like Barcelona eleven months ago — they were dealt a cruel blow by the referee at a moment in the game where victory looked more likely than not.
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