Friday, February 18, 2011

Woo! Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona

No one has ever questioned the ability of this Arsenal team. But I've often questioned its character. Against Barcelona, however, they showed a lot of fight. And, despite the common complaints about a lack of experience, Arsenal's three best players were Sczcesny, Wilshere and Koscielny, none of whom had seen much top-level football before this season.

To get a win, Arsenal rode their luck, but that was expected against what is a superior side. Messi had one of his mortal nights; despite laying on Villa's opener, he missed a couple of gilt-edged chances, one in each half. At times he miscontrolled the ball (!) and at times he was too selfish when he could have played in a team mate. Bottom line, Arsenal did not shackle him, and will need to improve in this regard in order to stand a chance of progressing.

It was a fantastic game. In its almost constant stream of action, it echoed Real Madrid's visit to Highbury in 2006. As on that occasion, the scoreline does not really reflect the amount of goalmouth action. Barca will certainly feel they were worth more than one goal. As well as his two surprising misses, Messi had a goal wrongly disallowed at 1-0. Arsenal went to pieces for a spell after Villa's strike, and during this time Sczcesny had to pull off a point blank save from Pedro's flick. The Barca winger was through on goal in the second half but hesitated and allowed Koscielny to get back. Overall, Arsenal's offside trap malfunctioned too often and Djourou and Koscielny failed to strike the right balance between stepping up and tracking back. But Arsenal were never going to learn to defend brilliantly in such a short time and the players deserve a lot of credit for great work rate and, by their standards, great organisation. They are not used to playing for such long stretches without the ball; on this occasion, in contrast to the corresponding fixture last year, they looked ready for the challenge.

It is no secret that Arsenal aspire to emulating Barca's style of play. At the moment, they are no match for them in the possession stakes, but at the Emirates they showed that they can play in more than one way. Again, the contrast with last season was pronounced. Back then, Arsenal looked like they didn't know what to do on the rare occasions when they got the ball back. This time, not only did they press better, they also counter attacked in dangerous fashion. Despite the general acclaim of Barca's performance, Arsenal executed the plan pretty well throughout the game, not just late on. I've read from a few different sources that Barca were in control throughout; in possession terms, they usually were, and looked dangerous most of the time, but their control of the game was tenuous because Arsenal were often ripping them apart on the break. Total control it was not.

Arsenal had their chances too. Early on, Barca looked jittery and the home side seized on their uncertainty pretty well, without always showing the surest touch themselves in the final third. Fabregas was guilty of a few poor passes early on but he created the game's first chance. After Walcott jinked into the box, he squared to the captain, and Fabregas chipped a beautiful pass over Alves and Puyol. Van Persie blasted the bouncing ball goalwards from a tight angle but Valdes stood up well. This came after Walcott had broke and tried to set Van Persie through, slightly overhitting his pass. Just before Barca's opener, another break, instigated by the excellent Wilshere, saw Walcott play in Fabregas to the right of the area. The ball was again slightly overhit, and forced Fabregas wide. As Valdes advanced, the captain flipped the ball across towards the head of RVP, only for Abidal to make a goal-saving intervention. Soon after Villa's goal, Wilshere was at the heart of another counter attack, running beyond Barca's midfield, then playing in Van Persie. The Dutchman dithered a little, getting the ball stuck under his feet, and finally shanked his shot horribly wide.

Make no mistake, there has been some revisionism about the balance of the game. Second half, Arsenal were the better side early doors. They struggled to make a clear cut opportunity but Barca looked less authorative and were under pressure at times. Van Persie almost diverted in Nasri's low cross from the left. Pique was booked for a panicky tackle and will miss the second leg.

Then (between 65 and 70 minutes or so) there was a spell which seems to have defined most peoples' opinions of the game overall. Arsenal lost their way, looked a bit disheartened. Messi ran to the edge of the box, shot selfishly, blocked. Eboue gave the loose ball straight to Iniesta, who played a lovely slide rule pass to the Argentine. Sczcesny made himself big, and Messi could only find the side of the net. Replays suggested he could have squared for one of two team mates. Immediately, with Barca looking as dominant as they had at any point in the second half, Guardiola sent Keita on for Villa. Negative. Simultaneously, Wenger sent Arshavin on for Song. Positive.

There was no immediate effect. The game degenerated into its first real quiet spell. But, as I saw written elsewhere, you have to wonder if Iniesta would have benefitted from the removal of Alex Song, Arsenal's holding player, had the Barca prompter not been moved into the front three to accommodate Keita.

Walcott had a run at Maxwell, tried to cross, the ball rebounded out for a goal kick. This seemed to sum up the winger's night, and he was soon replaced by Bendtner. At one point Gael Clichy knocked a free kick aimlessly through to Valdes from the Arsenal half, and one wondered if the Gunners had anything left.

Then, it happened. The full back who can't buy a final ball conjured his second decent right-footed chip of the season (after his cross for Song's winner against West Ham). Van Persie had a chance out of nowhere, but was fast approaching the byeline. Bendtner made himself available for the expected cross, and Valdes shifted position slightly, moving away from his near post. Van Persie blasted the ball, cutting across it so that it zipped into the space between the post and the flummoxed goalkeeper. It was an audacious effort from a player who was having a poor night to that point. A goalkeeping mistake, too, but how many players would be good enough to take advantage of it? A ridiculous shot- never has selfishness been rewarded so handsomely.

The goal changed the atmosphere completely. Barca were not so cocky, Arsenal's tails were up, and the noise was deafening again. Arsenal had a strong few minutes, but then Djourou gave the ball away needlessly, and Barca outnumbered Arsenal in the home side's final third. Twice more, Messi messed up. First he miscontrolled, then gave the ball away. Koscielny found Bendtner, who passed inside to Wilshere. The Englishman, having the match of his young career, spotted Fabregas in space and found him with a first time pass. Fabregas took it on the turn and then, with the outside of his right foot, sent Nasri steaming down the right and into the Barca area.

First, you were sad it wasn't Walcott. Then, you were glad it wasn't Walcott. Nasri was not quite quick enough to go it alone, and Keita got back. Nasri worked his way in onto his left, and then, displaying the kind of vision poor Theo couldn't dream of, rolled a perceptive ball back and across the area for Arshavin, rushing in from the left. This was exactly the kind of chance the Russian had been spooning into row Z lately, but the Emirates pitch does not present many bobbles, and a lightning move of great passes ended with another, Arshavin cooly dispatching past Valdes and the two covering defenders. The Emirates erupted.

Predictably, with seven minutes remaining, there were moments of panic. A couple of minutes from the 90, Arsenal were opened up with horrific ease, and yet again Messi was haring at the backline. This time he played in Alves, in acres to his right, but the shot was fired straight at Sczcesny. Then in stoppage time, Arshavin bungled a header back to his keeper from Busquets' diagonal. Alves kept the ball in, squared to Messi, but the little man was crowded out, the ball was booted away, and moments later the final whistle sounded.

It was a memorable comeback but the performance was far from perfect. Maybe it's about as close as Arsenal can be to perfect at this moment in time. They hassled the opposition, they were fairly incisive and pacey, and, in the end, they took a couple of chances. You'd expect Messi to be more clinical but, to a lesser extent, Van Persie suffered from the same problem. Both sides had a lot of chances; Barca's were the clearer ones because Arsenal's high line invited passes through it. Sczcesny was confronted by Messi twice, Pedro twice, Villa and Alves; only once was the Pole beaten.

Arsenal will need to defend better, because there is no chance that Barcelona will be as wasteful again. Despite the often flowing football, a lot of the chances stemmed from Arsenal sloppiness. For the goal, Djourou and Koscielny stepped up while Clichy played Villa on. Throughout the first half, Alves was given the run of the right flank, as if Nasri was not even aware of the danger. Arsenal gave the ball away in dangerous areas aswell.

But everyone knows about Arsenal's flaws. The great significance of this game to European football overall may be to remind everyone of Barcelona's weaknesses. They have been rightly lauded ever since the tonking of Mourinho's Real Madrid, but their defence is far from impregnable and their style of play leaves them open to quick, direct counter attacks. Other sides will have taken much encouragement from the way Arsenal opened Barca up on a few occasions. Those teams may not muster the same panache that marked Arsenal's magnificent winning goal, but they may not need to- remember the way Chelsea's fast, physical forward line almost battered Barca into submission two seasons ago at Stamford Bridge. If there is anything that will scare Barca more than the pace and skill of Arsenal, it's pace and power. And how many teams in the Champions League can play better on the back foot than Arsenal? Quite a few.

As it stands, Arsenal can still hope to progress. I don't expect them to do so because of their discomfort with the defensive side of the game, which is likely to be tested even more severely at the Nou Camp. But whatever happens, Wednesday was a night to remember, a great game of football, and it was nice to take the pompous bastards down a peg or two, for now.

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