Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Battered again but...

...Barca are too good to have to rely on an extra man all the time. Throughout the first half, on the rare occasions that Arsenal were bold enough to try tackling, the holier-than-thou home players bitched and badgered at the referee. Abidal rolled and moaned when tackled cleanly by Rosicky, trying to get the game stopped, but when Wilshere did something similar minutes later, he was surrounded by pompous pricks trying to pull him to his feet. I'm not trying to make excuses, because Arsenal were completely outclassed, but from the moment Abou Diaby's penalty area foul on Messi went unpunished, practically every decision went the home side's way.

It was a surreal game in many ways. Arsenal had two shots, if you're being kind. The first came from the head of a Barcelona player, and gave Arsenal an undeserved equaliser. The second saw Robin Van Persie sent off in ludicrous circumstances after he didn't hear the referee blow for offside. So in effect, there was not a single legitimate effort on goal by the team in yellow. Even stranger, Bendtner should have had one, should have scored, should have put Arsenal back in a winning position, but his touch was poor and Mascherano and Valdes smothered the chance. That was with minutes to go, by which point Barca should have been into double figures.

The first half was a story of atrocious passing by Arsenal, under ferocious pressing by Barca. There was no threat on the home goal, while the pressure steadily built at the other end, without the steady flow of chances we saw in the first leg. Arsenal never looked comfortable under siege. They wanted to play football, but could not deal with the pressure they were put under, and because Rosicky, Nasri and Van Persie all prefer to move towards the ball, there was no way out, no way of finding even temporary relief. Their play became steadily more ragged, until Fabregas gave the ball away on the edge of the area with a silly backheel straight to Iniesta, who found Messi with a lovely dink through. The impudent Argentine clipped the ball over the flailing Almunia's head, then vollyed it into the empty net. That looked like game over, as Arsenal had offered no threat at all.

After the lucky equaliser, and the unlucky red card, Almunia kept Arsenal in it with a number of fine saves. The Spaniard had come on for Szczesny, who injured his hand saving an Alves free kick in the first half. 10 v 11, it was one way traffic. Rosicky, Diaby, Wilshere and Fabregas, anonymous until his mistake and not fit to play any real part, proved no real barrier in front of the back four, who were forced into all kinds of desperate interventions before a lovely run from Iniesta and deft touch from Villa sent Xavi through to provide the inevitable goal. Easy to say it from the vantage of an armchair, but Wenger really needed to make some kind of change to stem the tide after the red card. That said, there were no obviously robust options on the Arsenal bench.

The aggregate scores were level again with just twenty minutes to go, but with Arsenal's lack of defensive nous, there was no chance of holding out that long. They barely lasted a couple of minutes before Pedro was felled by Koscielny in the box, and Messi stroked the resultant penalty into the corner to give Barca the advantage. A further away goal would have sent Arsenal through. Late on, good pressing from Wilshere and Arshavin saw the fomer cross for Bendtner, but the Dane fluffed his lines. In truth, an Arsenal victory would have been a bit of a travesty after they had been comprehensively outplayed. Barca were amazingly wasteful in front of goal again, having seemed to create chances at will.

Arsene Wenger was livid with the referee, and put forth the opinion that Arsenal would have progressed if not for the red card. He's being overly generous to his own team, who had failed miserably to play to their best in the first half, and were gifted a goal out of nothing. But we'll never know quite how the second half would have panned out if both sides had eleven men. It's likely that Arsenal would have had a few more decent attacks, and a second goal would have left Barca needing four, so the home side could not have attacked with no thought of being caught at the other end, which is basically what they were able to do for the rest of the game.

But what Arsenal, the masters of self-pity, need to avoid is wallowing in excuses and perceived hardship. They were outplayed again over two legs, and as Guardiola fairly assessed afterwards, couldn't string three passes together all night. For Mourinho and Inter, that was all part of the plan. For Arsenal, it was an abject failure to live up to their own pretensions. They shouldn't lose sight of that fact because of a harsh decision. They need to concentrate on salvaging something from a season in danger of freefall. That quest starts at Old Trafford this weekend, where Ferguson's team will also be looking to bounce back from recent disappointments.

messi 2 (1 pen)
busquets og

Aggregate: 4-3

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