This will always going to be a tough ask for Arsenal. At the best of times, Nou Camp is never a easy place to go to get results. Barcelona are the best team in the world. Even on their worst days, not many teams in the world could live with them. They hardly needed the match officials to make it easier for them but reality is, that is what happened. Which is why there is a bitter taste in every Gooner’s mouth.
Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie started their first match since returning from injury and it was a decision that cost us. It was clear that they were both not fit enough to play any significant part in the game. Fabregas’s suicidal back-heel just outside the box that lead to Lionel Messi scoring the opener. RvP’s petulant scuffle in the first half which earned him the first caution. To be fair to Arsene Wenger, those things had nothing to do with fitness levels.
At the start, Wenger decided to discard Andrey Arshavin for Tomas Rosicky probably with the intention of providing protection that the former is never renowned for. It was an understandable change given the fact that we did not have to chase the game at the beginning. Abou Diaby came in for the injured Alex Song but the Frenchman lacked the defensive awareness/resoluteness of his compatriot.
From the first whistle it was the case of us chasing and harrying without the ball. Barcelona had all the possession, no great surprise there. The moment we won the ball back, only 2 successful passes can be made before the home team won it back. We could hardly make any inroads on their makeshift defence. Xavi and Andreas Iniesta looked like they were playing in their own background park.
But we defended stoutly up until the injury time of the first half. Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny showed that their wonderful performance in the first leg was no fluke. Bacary Sagna was guilty of giving away possession but cannot be faulted for any of his defending. Gael Clichy gave far too much room to Pedro and/or Daniel Alves but always recovers sufficiently to prevent the danger.
Wojciech Szczesny injured his finger saving a thunderous freekick from Alves and had to be replaced by Manuel Almunia. We remember his performance from last season’s match as well as his other howlers this season. Yet, he was the difference between us eventually conceding 3 goals and 10 goals. Almunia was just inspired yesterday, makings saves after saves, blocks after blocks.
But he was undone by a magical Messi moment. Flicking the ball up with Almunia diving at him, the little Argentinian cleared the first hurdle and subsequently volleyed the ball into the empty net. Yet, the goal came about from an unnecessary back-heel from our captain. When everyone of his team mates were playing it safe, clearing the ball to safety, Fabregas played with fire and got burnt.
Before that, we already had a couple of players booked. Some valid and some not. The referee seemed to fall for every Barcelona fall. Every time their players touched the ground, it was a foul. Every time our players were blocked off, he let play go on. The Swiss referee did not blow when Messi went down inside our penalty box. He waved play on but don’t the rule book also say that if no foul is given, the player would then have to be book for diving? What was Diaby sent off for at Newcastle? Putting his hands around a player’s neck. How did 2 Barcelona players got away with nothing?
We had done a lot of work in the first half. Chasing after shadows was tiring as it is. To let it affect you to the point of risking the outcome of the game is stupid. Yes, it was frustrating for a team like us not to have periods on the ball. Yes, it was hard for us to impose our normal game. We needed every soldier to understand the magnitude of the task at hand. To be petulant is stupid.
RvP let himself down when he couldn’t control his emotions. You always knew he was going to get back Alves. The Brazilian is a joy to watch but his play acting makes it very hard to admire him. RvP’s flick at him that earned him the first yellow was the reason why he got sent off. At that point we already knew that the referee’s bias was on which side, we just could not give him simple decisions to make. That RvP’s second yellow was for kicking a ball away 1 second after the referee blew the whistle was unbelievable but the sending off could easily be avoided had RvP controlled his emotions better.
What makes it worst was that the red card came just minutes after we equalised. Somehow Samir Nasri managed to win us a corner. His in-swinging cross was missed by Diaby and landed fortuitously on the head of Sergi Busquets for an own goal. This was our lifeline. This was supposed to rattle the Barcelona team and crowd. They now had to score 2 to advance. The sending off so quick after our goal made all that irrelevant.
We were hanging by coattails with 11 players. To do it with just 10 players was almost an impossible task. Barca eventually took the lead when more tiki-taka moves lead to Xavi finding himself free to slot home past Almunia. Our Spaniard perhaps could’ve saved the shot if not for the deflection of Sagna. A couple of minutes later, our minimal hopes were dashed. Pedro went over Koscielny’s stretched leg and penalty was given. Messi just could not miss from the spot.
After that it was just a pain to watch to rest of the game. Tired as it is, now we have to win the ball back and get at the Barcelona goal. Heavy legs and a player less meant that we had to choose our moments to press higher. The one time it worked and the tireless Jack Wilshere managed to nick the ball of Adriano. A pass in-field and Nicklas Bendtner was through on goal. Unfortunately Bendtner’s first touch was very poor and the chance was lost. That was our silver lining, the Adebayor moment if you will (at Anfield) but it was not to be.
Our best player? Almunia was very good while Djourou and Koscielny held their own but there’s only one winner. Jack Wilshere. He was giving it his all and was the only player driving us forward as well as defending intelligently. His performance does not merit the end result he got. In 2 matches against the best midfield in the world, Wilshere did not once look out of place. We always talk about how we would miss Fabregas if he is not playing. Now, we can start to say the same thing about Wilshere.
On another day, we could just have easily sit here today admiring that our team were well beaten by the best side in the world. That we just could not cope with the firepower that is Barcelona. But today we sit here thinking of what ifs. What if RvP was not sent off? Would he be able to do what Bendtner couldn’t? What if there were video evidence to judge contentious decisions? What if the referee could actually see all the play acting?