Thursday, 1 April 2010

Six days time. Barcelona. Be there. First leg match report.

Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

It was all about scoring the third goal of the game.

Because aside from Porto, all our big games this season had hinged on the third goal, one way or the other. Away to United and City, at 1-1 it was anybody's game. Much the same can be said of our trip to Anfield. At home to both Chelsea and United, if we had made our pressure count and got it back to 2-1 it could have been a very different game. At Stamford Bridge there was no third goal and that was why the game went a little dead. The only time we had scored that crucial third goal of the match was at Anfield. Until last night.

Let us start with the beginning and the team selection: how many fans outside the ground would have complained that Fabregas and Gallas started? In retrospect, it's easy to say that Gallas was carrying a knock and last night has exacerbated it. But as my brother pointed out, the quickness of feet of the Barca attackers meant that if Sol had played, in all probability the back pages would have been a picture of Sol on his arse and the ball in the back of the net. The problem with Gallas' injury is that Song was far, far better in the holding midfield role. That, in itself, was not surprising. It took him a long time to become a success in holding midfield. Perhaps he could be an excellent centre-back; but he needs to learn the position. On the other hand, if Clichy actually is injured, a defence made up of Silvestre and Campbell amongst others does not inspire confidence for the Nou Camp. I'd be more worried about Silvestre than Sol. But this is all conjecture: judging by his recent team selections, I'd say Arsene would be more inclined to play Eboué at left-back than Silvestre.

The pick of Fabregas was a simple one which was always to be expected. I doubt he would have accepted not playing. If Nasri can replicate his performance against Porto if and when he has to stand in for Cesc in the second leg, it may not be that great a miss: he displayed great courage last night but was not nearly as influential as he can be and his passing was a tad disappointing.

That said, it would be churlish not to credit Barcelona. I found - and this was a view which resonated amongst the crowd - that Busquets was a cheat and played rather dirtily. But aside from that, Barca moved the ball well and just played excellent football. It's easy to say we should have closed them down more but there are two counters to that: firstly, they move the ball incredibly quickly; and second and perhaps more pertinently, we came into the game in the final quarter because we still had energy which hadn't been expended closing the opposition down - sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

Ibrahimovic took just 20 seconds to ram home how much crap I was talking at half-time, about how poor he is and how he's always off-side (although I protested vehemently at the time that he was offside). The second goal was well taken, the first was abysmal defending from Clichy. Almunia was probably at fault for the first but he was given no help by his team-mates. It just seemed like there was a lack of focus after the re-start.

And yet. For all we were 2-0 down, had lost two of our best players through injury, and our season seemed to be imploding before our eyes, we got back into it.

The Theo Walcott fan club is out in full across the media this morning, so let me say this: Valdes made a save from Bendtner at 1-0 which was a world-class save; but he definitely should have saved Theo's shot. That said, Walcott's running did seem to give us some impetus and it was no coincidence that we saw far more of the ball once he came on. Above all, it showed what is well known: that Valdes is not a good shot-stopper and we must test him more in the second leg.

The penalty was a 50/50 one, more of a penalty than the Franco one at the same end of the ground, but one could understand it not being given. That said, the referee had been very penal towards Arsenal all night - five bookings in a remarkably clean game - and it did seem to even it up somewhat. The rest as they say is history and although 2-2 is not a great result for us, from where we were with half an hour to play it gives us a great deal of hope.

It even meant that Thierry Henry could get a happy homecoming which was right since he is still a hero. He showed his class by applauding all four sides of the ground at the end. Yet as Gooners, we must hope he starts the second leg because I cannot see him performing against us.

Having lost Arshavin, Gallas, Fabregas, and (maybe) Clichy, its probably fair to say that we will struggle to challenge for the Premier League now. With RVP out injured, it means we're missing arguably four of our five best players. So that means that it's a win in the Nou Camp or bust. But Barca will be without Puyol and Piqué which must inevitably even it up somewhat. It won't be easy but we do have a chance.

Stuttgart secured a much more comfortable draw in the first leg and then were annihilated in Barcelona. It's certainly a test, but with half an hour left we seemed to have no hope. Now we do. And since the only thing the first leg can do is give you something to work with, it's not a bad result.

Arsenal won in the San Siro. Arsenal won in the Bernabeu. Arsenal won in the San Siro again. Now, to win in the Nou Camp. We can do it!

Keep the faith,

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