Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1
These are the sorts of games where you find everyone in the office stops you to ask if you`re going (they ask rhetorically, of course), the sort where they tell you they are lucky to be going (they never tell me about that for Newcastle away in the League Cup) and the sort for which, the preceding day in the office feels like one long dreary build up before the scene where Juliette Lewis goes topless. I arrived Finsbury Park tube station at around 5.35pm and the area was already congested, vibrating with excitement, crudely drawn sandwich boards with ticket requests scrawled on them visible in the early evening dusk. The Arsenal Tavern was throbbing with activity from 5.45pm, Brian described the evening as "le cirque du soleil of football." There was certainly a carnival atmosphere in the air.
We came into the stadium to find plastic flags on everyone`s seats. This was a point of some contention given that a good friend of mine was refused entry to the stadium and separated from his 4 year old son for the Wolves game, because his little boy was carrying a Carling Cup Final flag purchased in the club shop. Sooo, 4 year old with a flag, definite no, no, 60,000 people with flags o.k.? Glad the stadium policy there is clear Arsenal. The atmosphere was adrenaline propulsing from the minute the players stepped out of the tunnel. (For some reason, we were treated to some 80s disco lights next to the pitch when the teams came out?) But the message was clear; this wasn`t so much lend me your ears as he lend me your voices. Last season Barcelona passed us to death in the opening exchanges, Arsenal were determined not to have that happen again and Walcott sprinted out of the blocks, careering through the Barca midfield before releasing van Persie, who was wrongly flagged offside. Instantly, Barca knew they were going to have something to think about. Fabregas- who opta stats tell us covered more ground than any other player in the first half- clipped a cute ball to Robin van Persie, who had peeled away from Pique on the back post, but his volley from a narrow angle was beaten away by Valdes. Is it too much to suggest van Persie was sizing Valdes up from that angle?
However, slowly, Barca managed to get both hands firmly gripped around the throat of the tie. Their intricate build up is a joy to behold, the way they pull their centre halves almost over to the corner flag when Valdes gets the ball and push Alves on as an auxiliary winger, stretching the pitch to its zenith. The danger signs were there when David Villa nudged a through ball to Lionel Messi, who pitter pattered upon Szczesny`s goal, feinting to shoot, before lifting the ball over the prone goalkeeper and agonisingly wide of the post. A huge let off. But despite beginning to look punch drunk, Arsenal came up swinging on the counter attack. Walcott again led the charge, dancing away from Barca`s lagging midfield, before turning the ball wide to Fabregas. The angle was against the shot so he sent a measured chip towards van Persie on the far post, only for Eric Abidal to crane his neck and avert the danger. But Arsenal were struggling to get a sight of the ball and the pressure soon told. Lionel Messi wriggled away from Alex Song and slid a pass through for David Villa, who was beyond Arsenal`s centre halves but played onside by Clichy and Villa coolly slotted the ball between Szczesny`s legs.
A touch of déjà vu was in the air as Barcelona threatened to extend their lead, Alves sent in a low cross which Villa pirouetted and flicked goalwards, only for Szczesny`s sprawling frame to deny a cheeky effort. When the Gunners could get near the ball, they still offered threat. In respect of the threat of Walcott, Maxwell stayed well back, which rather stymied Theo, but also neutered the visitors` threat from the left. Wilshere, who revelled in the space afforded him by the attention Fabregas was receiving, arced a lovely ball to van Persie, who had again peeled into his favourite corridor of space betwixt full back and centre half, but his first touch let him down, meaning he needed another touch to set a shot which was screwed horribly wide. Wilshere completed 94% of his passes last night, 91% in the attacking third. It looked briefly as though the Catalans had stretched their lead when Pedro`s shot was saved by Szczesny and the rebound was smuggled to Messi, but his close range header was chalked out for offside. At half time, I felt a little fortunate to only be going in a goal down. It was hard to pinpoint much weakness from Arsenal`s game, Barca always look as though they are playing with 12 men. Watching Barcelona school us in this way was a bit like walking in your missus in an erotic clinch with Milla Jovovich. You know that, ultimately, this is a very bad thing that threatens your relationship. But you do feel slightly compelled to kick back and enjoy. But Arsene hatched something of a plan. Arsenal`s passing was much quicker in the second half and Eboue and Clichy narrowed the pitch by moving in closer to their centre halves and restricting space through the centre for Barca.
Though we repelled them more as a threat through increased pressuring of them on the ball, we did not pose much of a threat ourselves. Wilshere`s long shot stung the palms of Valdes, whilst Eboue, for about the 337th time this season, decided to try a stupid pass on the edge of his own box, surrendering possession to Iniesta, who released Messi. Fortunately for Eboue, Messi could only find the side netting. However, the biggest credit you can give Arsenal on the night was that, even though they were chasing the ball for large sections of the match, they stayed in the game long enough win the game. They took the jabs and formed their guard long enough to size up the opponent and hit him with an 11th Round uppercut. The manager made a brave move, removing Song, who was walking the tightrope with the Barca players utterly intent on getting him sent off and throwing on Arshavin. The move was justified as Guardiola responded by taking Villa off for Keita, meaning Iniesta moved into the front three. Instantly, Arsenal had a little more freedom in midfield with Nasri tucking back in. Bendtner too entered the fray at the expense of Walcott, to vary the threat.
Exactly a fortnight previous, Arsene threw on Bendtner and Arshavin as the Gunners trailed by a goal at home to Everton. Arsenal were holding their own and without Villa`s runs to think about, they were able to control the game. But they still needed a moment of magic to spark the renaissance into life. It`s no surprise that a chap named van Persie provided. Clichy chipped a smart right footed pass into the left channel, van Persie ran onto it on the touchline, with all and sundry awaiting the cross to Bendtner. Valdes was absolutely set at his front post, but as van Persie sized up the strike, Valdes shifted his weight at the last moment; van Persie called his bluff and smashed a volley past the front post from an impossible angle. An already vocal stadium roared into life, voices renewed and revitalised with vigour and optimism, after a good 70 minutes of encouragement borne out of vague hope. Last season, Barca showed they couldn`t live with our intensity in the last twenty minutes and so it proved again. Hardened by weekly encounters with the Stokes and Birminghams of the world, the Gunners are a battle hardened lot, used to scrapping for every point. I`m of the impression Barca are more used to teams rolling over and having their bellies tickled. Indeed, it`s not hard to see how they earn that luxury so often given their quality.
Five minutes later, Arsenal roared into the lead. Djourou burgled Messi of possession deep in Arsenal`s half and turned the ball to Wilshere, he flicked it first time to Fabregas. Maxwell was caught slumbering on the halfway line and Cesc hit a first time reverse ball to the onrushing Nasri. The Frenchman had the presence of mind to hold the ball up and await the cavalry; he looked up and cut the ball back to Arshavin. The little Russian had had carbon copies of this sort of chance over the last two months. At Elland Road he put the ball out of the stadium altogether. This time he kept his nerve and met the ball with a precise, Piresesque finish into the bottom corner. Tellingly, as the forward players cavorted next to the sea of baying fans, Djourou, Koscielny and Clichy all stretched out their limbs, suffering from cramp. Barca just did not have the urgency to hit back, though they were nearly gifted a chance when Arshavin carelessly under cooked a backwards header to Szczesny, Pedro threatened to pounce but Szczesny resisted the urge to try and swipe the ball and risk conceding a penalty. Instead, he performed a Schmeichel-a-like star shape and blocked the chance. Arsenal scrambled the ball clear.
The final whistle was greeted with an almighty roar as the players ecstatically slapped hands and beat their chests. Van Persie literally danced off the pitch. It is only half time in the tie and we know the sh*tstorm awaits us in the Nou Camp, but we know we have the tools to hurt them. We go there with belief and optimism rather than hope and despair. It is important we use this result to reinforce our belief. Hopefully, by the time the second leg comes around we`ll have a trophy in the cabinet too, which could further reinforce that belief. Arsenal stood toe to toe with the best side of my generation and beat them at their own game, it`s impossible not to feel giddy with that, even if Barca are still favourites to win the tie. The wide open spaces in the Nou Camp mean we can give them as much to think about as we have to consider from them. It`s not just us that knows we can beat Barca, they now know it too. It makes for a tantalising second leg. It is just imperative we do not concede in the first twenty minutes. We can take heart from their fear of Walcott, their knowledge that van Persie can turn mud into gold in the blink of an eye, that double marking Fabregas just leaves Wilshere freer to express himself. The fact that everyone I have spoken to and heard from concurs that Wilshere and Koscielny were our stand our performers, which tells you a lot. Djourou has deserved every glowing commendation that has come his way of late, but Koscielny`s form has been tragically under rated in that time. A lot of the talk of Wilshere is of a young man coming of age, maybe it is, I just thought he looked like a young man that was enjoying himself. That`s what we should do today too; the ramifications of the Nou Camp can be poured over another day.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 27.EBOUE, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG (23.Arshavin `68), 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGAS©, 14.WALCOTT (52.Bendtner `77), 8.NASRI, 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 1.Almunia, 7.Rosicky, 15.Denilson, 28.Gibbs, 29.Chamakh.
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