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As Arsenal fans, we don’t get to say these often enough but today is one of those chances to get it out for once. Arsenal was totally and utterly outplayed by a side many consider to be the greatest there is at the moment and maybe in history. However, the most important aspect of the statistics is that we are still in the tie even though we’ve only just managed to draw 2-2 in our home leg. Add to that, the fact that Barcelona will be missing their inspirational captain Carles Puyol and his partner in crime, Gerard Pique in the second leg, and I still quite fancy our chances at Nou Camp. Although we would be missing our own captain as well.
Barcelona started at breathtaking speed and took control of the game right from the kick-off. Chances after chances came, but one man was on hand to stop all of them. The same man who was culpable for our draw at the weekend but showed just why he is still number 1 at Arsenal. There was never any doubt that he is a fantastic shot-stopper and have good reflexes to match that but his sense of decision making is still poor. From being magnificent and flawless in the first half, within a minute of the second, his deficiency showed. Coming out of his goal line far too early, he was caught in no mans land as Ibrahimovic lobbed Almunia for the opening goal of the tie.
Wenger took a real gamble when he pushed Gallas and Fabregas right into the mix, in spite both being not match fit and still suffering effects of their injury. That move backfired when Gallas pulled up short 5 minutes into half time and had to be replaced by Denilson. The same calf injury played up again and I’ll be very surprised to see him in an Arsenal shirt again this season, and maybe forever. With that change, it meant Song moving backwards to the centre of defence. It is a partnership which has already survived a couple of games but lack of communications between Song and Vermaelen showed on both times that we conceded.
Vermaelen was trying to push a high line but Song stayed far to behind for that to work. Both times, Song was caught napping and allowed Ibrahimovic time and space to pick a shot. Both times, that headed right into the back of Almunia’s goal. Soft goals to concede at this level and at this stage of the competition. At 2-nil down, at home with barely 30 minutes left on the clock and only having 30% of the ball, it was hard to envisage any sort of comeback for Arsenal. Thankfully, I was wrong.
I said in my preview that Walcott could play an important role in this game. His pace against a side that utilizes both fullbacks in very advance attacking positions will allow him space to operate freely. His pace alone made Maxwell look like a slouch. Walcott was always looking to spin off behind the left back and on one such occasion, Bendtner’s pass found him inside the box. Without taking a second thought, Walcott shot at goal. It was a bit close to Victor Valdes but still managed to squirm its way into the net. Then came the pivotal moment of the match.
Fabregas, who look very much off the pace today but still contrived to give Arsenal hope in the return leg, on two accounts in a single incident. Bendtner was again at hand to provide the pass to set up Fabregas for the shot inside the box. Puyol came for the challenge and Fabregas won a penalty which he tucked in effortlessly after having sent Valdes the wrong way. Him winning the penalty also meant that Puyol was sent off and thus missing the second leg. The referee had no choice, once he had given the penalty, he had to sent off the Barcelona captain. In a way, it was justice served as Fabregas too, will miss the second leg after picking up a yellow card in the game. It must’ve really hurt him to miss the chance to go back to play in Nou Camp.
Barcelona had their chances to secure a very commanding lead to take back to Nou Camp. They could in fact, even had killed off the tie in the first leg itself. But that did not happen. Arsenal hung in there even when their backs are up against the wall. They say sometimes, spirit alone can win you games. We showed spirit and character to recover from the earlier deficit and gave ourself a chance in Spain. For now though, our minds must switch back to the Premier League and Wolves.