It was music to the ears to hear the doubters’ fall of their armchairs when the final whistle blew at an exuberant and deafening Emirates stadium on Wednesday night.
As the Arsenal fans and players celebrated away, certain sections of those that whole heartedly knew about this, “battering” that Arsenal were due, worked well into the night to compile the excuses for Barcelona.
All of a sudden, it seemed as though everyone in the world was either a Barcelona or an Arsenal fan. There were many that completely refused to give Arsenal and any of the players credit for the win, instead focusing on how the referee “helped” us. None of them even managed to spell referee after Dowd’s performance at St. James’ Park or Howard Webb at the Theatre of Scums. All of a sudden, it was the “referee that won Arsenal the game” because the Arsenal are never allowed to be credited with a hard fought victory. It’s difficult to understand what allegiance these people suddenly have towards Barcelona.
I don’t doubt that Messi’s goal was wrongly deemed offside. Nor do I deny that they kept the ball for the majority of the 90 minutes. Isn’t that a tune we have heard before? An accusation levelled at us several times when we played Chavski or Manure? Last season, we completely played the Chavs and Manure off the park both home and away but lost both games. This season, the game at the Bridge was one of the most one sided football matches Arsenal played in and yet our team was accused of the “tippy tappy football with no end product”.
So where have those critics gone now? Why are they now changing tact to claim that the team that kept possession the most should have won? The claims of “handball” against Djorou and Arshavin were sickening. I have watched the whole game twice now and looked at the claims countless times and at no point can you ever even claim them as handballs.
Our performance was solid to say the very least. Spuds manager Twitchy claimed we were playing “suicide football” in the first half and surprising as it is, he was right to an extent. It was a bit of suicide football but Barca are not used to teams playing a high defensive line against them. They are used to the opposition defending deep and being able to pass around the box to eventually one-two their way through. Wenger however, gave them a different challenge to deal with on Wednesday night.
As I mentioned, we played a very high line against them. This meant that for Barcelona to find an opening, they would have to pick out an eye of the needle pass or a chip that would allow Villa or Messi to beat the offside trap and latch on to the ball. Any time Messi, Alves or Villa attempted any dribbles, they would get over crowded and shut down – lesson learnt from last season.
There was another problem Wenger threw at them to deal with. Unlike the tactical advice which pundits were suggesting (best way to beat them is letting Barcelona have the ball and defend deep, Arsenal pressed every Barcelona player at every opportunity, forcing them to play their passes quickly. Every pass that was played in our half was hunted down by an Arsenal player. To be able to play a defence unlocking pass, space and timing are key factors, neither of which was in Barca’s favour.
They did twice, manage to find the killer pass in that first half when Villa scored and Messi (for every man and his dog thinking he scored) missed the one on one. It’s fair to say they were wasteful and Arsenal are more than aware of the whole “not taking your chances” situation.
I was surprised to see the way Barca set out for the second half. They looked leggy and tired; Messi seemed uninterested at times, Xavi looked as though he is more interested in proving to the world that Barca players can pass the ball to each other rather than posing a threat and the rest all looked like they ran a marathon. Whether this is due to the pressing in the first half they are not used to, or a lack of squad rotation from Guardiola or even a combination of both, it was certainly a factor that played a part in our victory. We started to see more of the ball and created some openings.
While Guardiola surprisingly went for the “hold on to the lead” approach with his substitutions that Barca are not used to, Wenger made a change that left many rather baffled. Song was taken off to avoid the team being reduced to 10. I expected Denilson to replace him and instead, Arshavin came on which proved to be a masterstroke. Alves now had some pace to deal with that would test his non-existent defensive skills. Nasri was moved more central with Bendtner coming on for Walcott on the right.
Van Persie’s goal was fantastic to say the least. Most critics decided to point to Valdes’ inability to do simple goalkeeping, from which it is clear that they haven’t seen much of Barcelona in the past. Clichy’s pass over the top was immaculate and Van Persie looked up to find the angle and unleashed a shot that beat Valdes at the near post.
The celebration was rather like a Mexican wave at the ground. I was sitting at the clock end corner and all those sitting near me were wondering why the North Bank are continuing to celebrate Van Persie ruffle the side netting. After a while it registered that he scored and the celebration was immense from the fans while Van Persie even got a rare bear hug from Wenger.
When Bendtner was substituted on for Theo at 1-0, I made a sarcastic comment that this substitution would win the game. I was half made to eat my words as Bendtner played an important part in the second goal which he did not get credit for. After Koscielny won the ball, he distributed it wide to Bendtner, deep inside the Arsenal half. The Dane drew 2 players towards him before passing it out to Wilshere who had some space to pick out his next pass. Wilshere found Fabregas who found Nasri in acres of space at the other end. In came Arshavin to latch on to Nasri’s pass and curl it into the goal. Oh how the Gooners celebrated that goal!
Arsenal kept solid, defended strongly and saw the game out. The Emirates was buzzing from start to finish and given the history of the teams in recent times, the celebrations were extra jubilant.
Special praises should go to Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny. While the former is inexperienced at only 19, Wilshere didn’t look out of placed, nor overawed by playing up against Xavi and Iniesta. As for Koscielny, he was playing in lower French leagues only 2 years ago. He’s not the perfect defender, but he kept a check on Messi which is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination.
The return leg will be MASSIVELY difficult. Barca have scored 19 goals in 6 knockout stage games in the past 2 seasons at Camp Nou conceding only 3 (1 to Arsenal and 2 to Lyon). Out of the 6 teams in those knock out stage games, only Chavski managed to come out with a 0-0 draw.
Despite that, as we may already know, Arsenal love these challenges. We were the first team to win at the Santiago Bernebeu, and came out with a victory against AC Milan and Inter Milan at the San Siro, while let’s not forget the hostile atmospheres of Celtic Park and the Şükrü Saracoğlu in Istanbul when we faced Celtic and Fenerbahce respectively.
Arsenal must look for the away goal and use Walcott’s pace at every opportunity while keeping it tight at the back. Barca will play with an obsessive attacking mindset and Arsenal must exploit this to hit them on the counter. To say it will be tough is an understatement, but I, like the other Gooners, will be there at the Camp Nou to lend the full support. They may have a strong attacking force, but we’ve got Cesc Fabregas!