It’s hard not to enjoy that is it not? Now, after more than 12 hours have passed since the game ended, I’m still buzzing. It belies the fact that I had only 4 hours of sleep in the past 48 hours. With the match starting at 3:45am in Malaysia and between work, there was no choice for me. Anyway, enough about me and on to the game.
We’ve have had numerous games which has been billed-up as the match of the season/decade/century but many have failed to live up to it. There was no such nonsense for this one. If you thought last season’s game was fantastic, this is even better. A match between 2 of the best footballing side in the world showed us that you don’t have to settle for less to make things work.
Both sides played stayed true to their philosophies and their brand of attacking football. Arsene Wenger made the all important decision of fielding Samir Nasri right from the start while Pep Guardiola played Eric Abidal in the centre of his defence. Arsenal traded the first punch with Theo Walcott finding more space than he would imagined.
Cesc Fabregas’ perfectly lifted pass for Robin Van Persie was brilliant. However RvP only managed to shoot straight at Victor Valdes. Our Dutch striker was then clattered by Gerard Pique and it baffles me how the Spanish defender did not get any card for that challenge. Pique did get one later in the game which left him suspended for the return fixture. After that, Barcelona took over.
Intricate passes were threaded between Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Pedro, Sergio Busquests and David Villa and it was mesmerizing. Those are names that rolled off the tongue and it was simple yet magnificent period of keep ball from them. Arsenal just simply were bystanders watching them put on a display. This is how other teams feel when they play us. Nerves were jangled on the Arsenal end and it really got to one of them.
Alex Song is crucial to our cause. Yet, his yellow card in the 7th minute put paid to his hopes of putting in a performance. His role is based on tackling and being the enforcer in the middle of the park. With the possibility of a red card looming over his head, his hands were pretty much tied. Though to be fair, this was one of those times where his yellow is a good one. In the sense that it was a dangerous breakaway from Barcelona and we could have conceded. The fact that he did not calm down after that meant that he was a liability to us in this game. Song can count himself lucky not to be sent off in this game for persistent fouling (whether it is a correct decision or not).
Barca has been caught offside a couple of times before the took the lead. This time Gael Clichy was unaware of his defensive line and played Villa onside. Messi was on one of his mazy runs and managed to prod the ball towards the path of Villa, who slotted home between the legs of Wojciech Szczesny. It was tough only because we had played so well up to this point. Then they proceeded to play keep ball for the rest of half.
In the past, you could question the mentality of the team when faced with such obstacle. Whether they will raise the game in the second half or not. Arsenal players are not used to having seen so less of the ball. We just have to be sharper and quicker in the second 45 minutes. That was exactly what transpired.
Suddenly there was more pressure from the Arsenal side. We wanted the ball more and just kept at it, even though there wasn’t much success in finding a hole in the Barca defence. I remembered looking up at the clock and it showed 70 minutes was already up. Where did the time go? There I was worrying there wasn’t enough time for us to come back and win this. 8 minutes later, my fears were allayed.
RvP had missed a few chances already in the game. The shots were either too soft or too hard. This time, it was perfect. Played through by a looping Clichy right-footed ball and a fantastic volley later, we were all square. Poor positioning from Valdes possibly but such was the power and swerve in the shot, you really can’t fault the keeper much.
Another 5 minutes later, we went ahead. Jack Wilshere played a quick pass to Fabregas who immediately unleashed Nasri on the right. Guessed who kept up with the Frenchman? Yes, Andrey Arshavin. The Russian received Nasri’s pass and calmly passed the ball into the net with Valdes already halfway to the other post. You Russian beauty, back in the goals, bang on form.
It was a matter of holding out the final 7 minutes or so plus injury time. There were some chaotic moments but otherwise, very swiftly dealt with by Arsenal. In a game like this where we beat a team that is arguably the best in the world at the moment, it is hard to pin point individual players for their effort. However 2 players really stood up for me.
Wilshere is only 19 but played beyond his years. Here he was up against the 2nd and 3rd best player in the world in midfield. Not once did he look out of place. His tackling was superb, his tenacity, his strength and his ability to pick the right passes was incredible for a boy playing in the biggest game of his life. Xavi and Iniesta are very good but I’ll never trade Wilshere for any of them.
Laurent Koscielny received a lot of stick early in the season from some sections of Arsenal fans who claimed he was not good enough. After this performance, you would not find a single fan who would criticise him. His reading of the game of immaculate and his defending was superb. I had only seen maybe one or two players who managed to beat him in one-on-ones over the course of the season but none in yesterday’s game. Put on top of that his good ball playing skill, bringing out the ball from defence with consummate ease and not playing a single pass wrong, you can envisage the kind of player he will eventually be.
There’s no point to be over confident. This is only half time in the tie. The battle resumes in a few weeks’ time. But it is hard not to be proud of the team yesterday. I’m also proud of the fans inside the stadium. From the start to finish, they were right behind the team. Nights like is makes me a very proud Gooner.