Saturday, 19 February 2011
Not Too Xavi. Barcelona match report.
Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1
Painful as it is, cast your mind back to that fateful day in October 2004 where we lost our unbeaten record at Old Trafford. Why? Because in spite of not winning the Champions League that year, that Arsenal side was the best in world football. And they were beaten not by a great counter-attacking performance, not by being out-passed or out-played, but by being kicked and an outrageous dive from Wayne Rooney.
And although that Arsenal side was excellent, it was no match for the current Barcelona side - as Cesc put it, they are one of the greatest teams ever. We beat them at their own game.
It would be unfair to say we outplayed them, but we made them press enough that they tired, and when they did, we clicked into action.
As well as being an excellent football match, it was a very odd game. Arsenal started as the better team - with the stadium really alive - but then Messi should have scored when through on goal. We continued to have a lot of the game, and then Villa scored, almost against the run of play. And after that, Barcelona absolutely murdered us for fifteen or twenty minutes - their fans will be feeling sheepish for olé-ing but it was entirely understandable: we could barely get a kick.
But despite the oodles of possession, there was little end product. We were solid in defence and there was no way through. And at half-time we were in the game, we were behind, but it didn't feel like we were out. We'd had a couple of half-chances and hadn't helped ourselves with some poor decision-making (Theo, quelle surprise...), and though lots has been said about Valdes' second-half performance he made a great save from Van Persie in the opening minutes which dramatically changed the game.
What was interesting was that despite being completely outplayed in the second 'quarter' of the game, we didn't change how we played. We still kept on playing the same game, Alex Song still looked like he might get sent off, and I, personally, was always scared that they would beat our offside trap again.
But, cliched as it sounds, as long as the lead was one goal, there was every chance for us to get back into the game. Credit nonetheless to the manager.
I was hoping Song would be taken off - I said in my preview that I hoped Denilson would play, and it's because I think Song's physical game doesn't quite work against the Barcelona midfield. Regardless, the manager changed things instead by introducing Arshavin for Song.
It was a bold change, but it was also the right change.
The Russian gave Alves something different to worry about, and with so much of the game being played in the middle third, although Nasri was nominally the holding player, he basically played as an auxiliary central midfielder.
We began to have more possession again, but we still weren't creating the chances and I was wondering where a goal would come from - Barca were beginning to tire, but whereas last year Walcott changed the game, this time he was quiet.
Once again Arsene was proactive - he went for it, with Walcott removed and Bendtner introduced. And 93 seconds later we were rewarded. Pep Guardiola would have prepared Barca for many things, but not for a scooped, inch-perfect ball from Gael Clichy. Robin's first-touch was a little heavy, but rather than checking, he just blasted it from pretty much the byline. It was, regardless of the poor goalkeeping, a great goal.
And the Grove was alive. People around me really started to believe, urging the boys on - the entire stadium, including the upper tier was on its feet.
The winning goal was something special - I must have watched it twenty times on my computer. Bendtner to Wilshere to Fabregas to Nasri and finally a sumptuous finish from Andrey Arshavin. A brilliant goal.
In the closing eight minutes, we could have made it 3-1 if Nicky B had chosen to play in Van Persie, but there were also some worrisome defensive moments - but I felt a lot more confident with Koscielny and Szczesny at the back than I have done in the past.
When the ref blew the final whistle, I knew I had been witness to something special - the best game I've been to in a long, long time; a sensational European night at the Grove; and I had seen Barcelona beaten, something increasingly rare.
It came partly from some inspired tactical changes from Wenger; partly from Guardiola removing Villa for Keita, a substitution which clearly didn't work; and partly from some really strong home support which spurred the boys on. It was an exceptional team performance, although Laurent Koscielny's performance was the strongest defensive performance I can remember from an Arsenal player in a long, long time.
Crucially, I'll travel to Barcelona with hope. The players won't have the same level of support, but if we can avoid injuries over the next few weeks I think we'll have every chance of progression.
This season is starting to look like it could be something special.
Keep the faith.