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Barcelona Preview: Dream Time

A routine blog preview was blown apart yesterday afternoon. Most of it still holds true but has been amended since it was completed at 11am yesterday morning.

Arsenal are on the cusp of greatness. Criminally underrated in their own media – once more a barrage of ‘chokers’ came on Sunday, notably from Andy Dunn in the vile News of the World – appreciation of the squad comes from abroad. If victory is achieved this evening or even progress made, in the eyes of the British media, Arsenal will not have won the tie, Barcelona will have thrown it away. Or have been robbed by an incorrect decision.

Against this backdrop, the absence of key players is feeding a feeling of doom, where bowels to water. For Alex Song, history repeats itself. Absent last season, once more he will not make an appearance in the Camp Nou. The biggest question is who replaces him in the centre of the triumverate; Abou Diaby, Denilson or an outside chance, Emmanuel Eboué?

The Ivorian is very much an outside choice; it would not be the first time he has played in the defensive midfield role but it is not suited to his maverick style of defending.

The choice is simple; Denilson will offer more in terms of ball retention whilst Diaby is capable of more thrusting runs, piercing the heart of the Barca defence. The fixture does not require the blood and thunder which is seen so frequently in domestic football; it will be an altogether more cerebral affair, one where the quickness of the mind will be as telling as the fleetness of foot.

Where will Arsène put his faith? My feeling is that Denilson will get the nod, perhaps he is viewed as more disciplined in the pursuit of the ball for that is going to be a major factor in any Arsenal success this evening.

Elsewhere, Arsène’s choices are very much made for him bar who leads the line. Nasri has been outstanding when playing a wider role this season, able to drift off of both flanks and Cesc’s return will enable the resumption of those duties. On the opposite side, the spaces of the Camp Nou will be filled with the scampering feet of Andrey Arshavin, whose recovery of form is coming at a welcome time.

As I mentioned yesterday, Nicklas Bendtner will lead the line. Unless of course, Arsène is pulling a stroke in which case, welcome back Robin and Alex. As unlikely as it seems…it is wishful thinking, the Dutchman though has returned to training which is good news, perhaps The Hawthorns is being pencilled in for his return?

And Arsène has the barefaced cheek to say that he doesn’t know how to play mind games. Who is he kidding. That van Persie is back is great news. That he is back so soon is somewhat worrying in that it has echoes of Thierry Henry returning to the side for the second leg against PSV in 2007 and frankly being a passenger in that performance.

If van Persie is genuinely fit – and properly fit – then put him in the starting line-up; if not, leave him on the bench. It is the latter which ought to hold sway, if commonsense plays anything in the decision. It won’t though; too much is at stake. Arsenal have to score this evening. Or keep a clean sheet; one or the other. A win would be fantastic and not impossible, despite media protestations to the contrary, Barcelona are not invincible no matter how good a side they are.

van Persie might be included from the start with Arsène taking the view that an hour of the Dutchman might quell some of the Catalans attacking instincts. Defensively they are weakened by the absence of Puyol and Pique but in Milito and Abidal they do not have raw recruits replacing them; these are two experienced internationals who know their trade.

It just seems more likely that van Persie will be brought on with half an hour to go or perhaps sooner if, God forbid, the situation requires. In that time, a world class striker is more than capable of wreaking havoc. And van Persie is World Class.

That said, the line-up I expect to start tonight is:

Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy; Fàbregas, Denilson, Wilshere; Nasri, Bendtner (van Persie), Arshavin

History is apparently with Andrey Arshavin, Arsenal never having lost a European tie in which he has played. Whether that is true, I know not but it is the sort of fact which brings comfort.

It is better than knowing that a clean sheet has eluded Arsenal in an away Champions League match since 2009, a two-goal victory at Celtic Park. If you exclude qualifying rounds, then it was victory in the San Siro when AC Milan succumbed.

Only twice previously have Arsenal won a first leg, second round 2-1. On both occasions – 1979-80 and 1994-95 – Arsenal reached the final. Don’t worry about the losing both of those finals, we’ll find something else to overcome that.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Arsenal Show Barcelona What Progress Is

UEFA Champions League Round of 16, 1st Leg
Arsenal 2 – 1 FC Barcelona

0 – 1 Villa (26)
1 – 1 van Persie (78)
2 – 1 Arshavin (83)

Arsenal travel to the Camp Nou in three weeks time with a deserved first leg advantage, a rousing second half performance that was supported ably by the counter-punching of the first.

It leaves Arsenal with a slim lead in the second leg, wary of the attacking strength of their opponents, encouraged by their defensive weaknesses, problems that will be exacerbated by the absence of the suspended Piquet.

Rarely do matches where the media hype has gone into overdrive, live up to expectations; this one did. Barcelona had marginally more possession overall – dominant in the first half, pegged back in the second. Arsenal had more goal threat.

Samir Nasri returned to the starting line-up, a change that would be vindicated as the Frenchman’s confidence returned through the ninety minutes on pitch. Otherwise the teamsheet was as expected.

The night dew glistened on the pitch, Arsenal and Barcelona went toe-to-toe with passing styles that gave a masterclass in how football should be played. It was a mesmirising affair; all of the intricacies that were the Catalans are renowned for were matched by the hosts, whose pace exposed the gaps left by pretty patterns being woven across the pitch.

As early as the third minute, Theo Walcott gave notice of the attacking threat, a rapier thrust that ended with van Persie caught offside, Samir Nasri unmarked on the left might have been the better choice.

Arsenal dominated the early spell, surprising the visitors with their sharpness in the tackle, their tenacity in chasing the ball when possession surrendered. Such a start merited the opening goal and it so nearly came when Robin van Persie unleashed a thumping left-footed drive, Valdes parrying away to safety.

Barcelona struck back shortly after. Villa and Messi interchanged positions and passes, the Argentinean raced clear to face Szczesny, the young Pole stood tall, waited, the shot went past him and the far post, narrowly. The goalkeeper though did everything right and that which was expected of him, as he did for the whole of the match.

Messi clipped an effort tamely into the hands of Szczesny before a counter-punch almost had Barcelona reeling. Walcott broke free and found Fàbregas free on the right flank. The Spaniard delivered an inch from perfect cross, Abidal able to glance clear before van Persie arriving behind him, could head home.

Within a minute, the home side were left rocking. Once more Villa and Messi combined to slice through the central area of the Arsenal defence, the Spanish striker free in the area to slide the ball under the onrushing Szczesny. It was the first defensive lapse by Arsenal, the centre backs drawn to the ball, Clichy not keeping tabs on the offside trap being played. No-one individual to blame, a collective failure.

The visitors pressed home their advantage; Arsenal were blocking efforts from the Catalans before a clear sight of goal could be achieved but jabbing with counter-attacks whilst they regrouped, most notably when Jack Wilshere strode through the Barcelona midfield before van Persie shot wide.

History almost repeated itself when Messi was correctly ruled offside (as replays later proved), bundling home Pedro’s scuffed effort. One year on and Arsenal faced trailing at the interval by two goals; this time Arsenal maintained a retrievable one-goal deficit.

The break allowed Arsenal to regroup and emerge more determined to establish parity. Pedro escaped a yellow card for a theatrical dive over Koscielny in the area before a Nasri cross was intercepted as van Persie was once more arriving to slide home had the ball reached him.

With a quarter of the game remaining, Arsène made a game changing substitution. Alex Song had been excellent and disciplined, playing over an hour on a yellow card. Wenger admitted that this was part of the reason for the change but more that he was determined to go for it. Arshavin arrived; Walcott soon after, Bendtner his replacement.

Fifteen minutes later and the changes were entirely vindicated. As the eighty minute mark approached, Clichy chipped the perfect ball over the Barcelona defence, van Persie clear on the left struck accurately past Valdes at the near post; Bob Wilson and Manuel Almunia might empathise with the Catalan but sympathy is in short supply.

Having drawn level, Arsenal turned the screw even further. Five minutes later Nasri sprinted clear of Barcelona on the right side, remained calm and waited for support to arrive. As the defenders sought to establish a wall to snuffle out the chance, Arshavin arrived stage left, Nasri picked him out and the Russian curled the ball around Abidal and past a stranded Valdes.

It was a glorious Emirates Evening; a win that did so much good for the club on so many levels. The players proved to themselves and outsiders that they can compete at the highest levels and emerge victorious; the support rocked, Barcelona rolled, their air of invincibility shattered. Now Arsenal need to take it one stage further and produce a performance of equal stature in northern Spain.

’til Tomorrow

Arsenal Battered And Beaten In Nou Camp

Champions League Quarter Final, 2nd Leg
Barcelona 4 – 1 Arsenal
(Barcelona win 6 – 3 on aggregate)

0 – 1 Bendtner (18)
1 – 1 Messi (21)
2 – 1 Messi (37)
3 – 1 Messi (42)
4 – 1 Messi (87)

Another season’s European dream is in tatters, hearts shattered as Arsenal were out-passed, out-run, out-thought and outplayed. Having failed to live up to the hype in the first leg, Lionel Messi returned with a vengeance, his first half hat-trick battering Arsenal into submission. There were individual performances on the Arsenal side which were below par but overall, the better side won. As easy as it is to point to the Argentinean international as being the difference between the two sides, the rest of the Barcelona team put in a considerable amount of hard work to enable that difference to be made.

Over the two legs, the disappointment is that Arsenal did not play anywhere near their best save for the thirty minutes in the first leg. For that, Barcelona take credit, their speed of passing and retention of possession, combined with the pressure applied when chasing the ball prevented Arsenal from hitting their heights. The absence of injured players is no excuse, no matter their importance to the side. The squad should be deep enough to deal with this and comparably, Barcelona had injuries to similarly key players.

The opening exchanges were not as one-sided as the first leg but it was still Barcelona who enjoyed the majority of possession, Messi bringing a save from Almunia before dropping a shot onto the top of the net. It was apparent that Arsenal would spend the evening absorbing pressure and hitting on the break. Which is exactly what happened with the first quarter of an hour barely over.

Diaby won the ball in midfield, freed Walcott who used his pace to sprint into the area, unselfishly crossing to Bendtner, the Dane reacting quickest to the rebound after Valdes blocked his initial effort. The lead, the chance to put doubts into the hosts minds, prove everyone wrong about this squad.

To achieve that it was necessary to hold onto the lead. Arsenal did but for barely two minutes. Barcelona applied the pressure, Nasri deflected the ball into Silvestre, slightly wrong-footed as he intercepted, merely diverting it back to Messi who struck from the edge of the area into the top corner; an outstanding finish.

The second came as Arsenal tried to regroup. Abidal was played in behind the defence, his cross intercepted by Silvestre but his weak clearance only reached Messi – the finish punishing the ineffective defensive work in the build-up.  The third, and Messi’s hat-trick, was not unexpected. The defence held a high line in their own half, Clichy not quite as far forward as he should have been, Messi played through and sprinted clear, finishing in the same manner as Carlos Vela has in the Carling Cup over the past couple of seasons. For a club well-versed with tight defending, it was a poor goal to concede.

In the second half, Barcelona seemed content to sit back, understandably with the tie in their control. Rosicky’s first time effort which flew high and wide whilst Bendtner hit the post, only to flagged offside. Pedro lifted the ball over the onrushing Almunia and wide of the goal whilst Clichy shot over when Eduardo was perhaps better placed. In the end, the fourth came as Messi weaved his way across the Arsenal area, Almunia blocked but was beaten as Messi drilled through his legs.

For Wenger, he has just over a week to work on the fitness of those who are absent. With the rest of the squad, it will be regrouping mentally. Last night would have damaged confidence, perhaps leading to questions about just how good the squad is, a crisis of faith perhaps. It showed how far they have to travel in order to become the best in Europe; that is a longer term concern. Immediately though wounded pride needs to be nutured ahead of the trip to White Hart Lane.

Question marks over the performances in the big matches will tax Arsene’s mind as he looks to strengthen the squad in the summer. As unpleasant as the thought is, we have woefully underachieved against our ‘peers’ this season. No one player or position is at fault. The lack of depth in central defence will no doubt be an area he looks to resolve, the absence of Gallas, Djourou, Song and Campbell last night proved too big a hole to plug. Now though is not the time for knee-jerk reaction.

Despite the obvious negatives, there were some positives to take forward. Clichy was excellent and his contest with Alves should have been the example followed by all. Likewise Almunia, despite conceding four, performed well. It hints that the ability is there, concentration and consistency need to follow. Sagna and Vermaelen played decently, shouldering their duties consistently throughout the evening, although the former was exposed for the second. Denilson’s critics were made to review their position, the Brazilian working hard to close down space.

Others can do better and will do but the upshot is that the list of potential trophies this season reduced to one. Focus returns to that now. Despite that though, there have been tangible improvements this season, the basis upon which to build for the remainder of this campaign and the future.

’til Tomorrow.

Barcelona v Arsenal: A Night Of Chilling Simplicity

Cast your minds back to any trip that Arsenal has made to a major European football venue and the tag of ‘underdogs’ has usually been applied. The San Siro; the Bernabeu; the Stadio Olimpico. Fixtures over the years from which Arsenal has emerged victorious. This time Barcelona brims with confidence that two away goals and a dominant first half performance will be sufficient. In their position, you would want to forget the final thirty minutes when the tight grip they had loosened significantly. They should not though for in that time is the key to the tie.

Dani Alves, rather appropriately for this time of year, decreed that Arsenal needs ‘a big miracle‘ to progress. Miracles are not required. A tight defensive performance is. A clean sheet would be most advantageous. A win is not a necessity but to rest hopes on a high scoring draw is ambitious and defeatist in attitude. Despite media claims to the contrary, Arsenal’s progress is definitely in their hands.

To quote Brian Moore, it is ‘a night of chilling simplicity‘; one more goal than Barcelona sees Arsenal through to the semi-final. Not an easy task nor is it impossible. The Catalans are an outstanding team, any one who denies that deceives themselves. Unbeatable? No. Sevilla has won in the Camp Nou as have Rubin Kazan this season.

Whilst he would have preferred a lead, the draw in the first leg also helps Wenger’s preparation. The focus has to be completely upon victory tonight; there are no distractions of a draw or a slender margin of defeat being good enough to proceed. Victory is, realistically, the only way in which Arsenal can ensure their progress. He is not helped by the absence of four crucial players but from adversity, the squad has achieved much this season. Habitually written off in the Premier League, annoying the great and the good by still being in the race for the title, albeit in the hands of the results of two other teams, as well as their own.

Missing four seasoned and talented members of the squad weakens any team, no matter how good the ‘understudies’ are. However, there is enough depth to the squad in their positions that talent can come in whilst still leaving Wenger options as to whether it is all-out attack or a more considered approach with a fresh injection of ideas in the final half an hour.

Defensively, Gallas’ absence means the decision for Wenger is two-fold. Is Sol Campbell fit enough to play this evening given the proximity of the final whistle against Wolves or is Silvestre fitter and therefore, the starter? With over a week to the next Premier League fixture, Campbell’s recovery from the weekend is all that matters in terms of his fitness, no immediate concern for upcoming matches as there is a week to Tottenham. Both players will give their all in pursuit of winning, effort cannot be criticised. Both are capable of positional clangers and outstanding tackles in equal measure.

For me, Silvestre is a better left back than central defender but needs must. If Campbell is not fully fit, he should not play. Compensating for his diminshing pace with good positional play is one thing; to have to compensate for restricted movement due to injury adds unnecessary pressure to all of the back four.

With Alex Song and Fabregas missing, the midfield and front line will need reshuffling. Who fills those roles depends on the fitness of Tomas Rosicky. Having lost Gallas and his captain through recurrence or worsening of existing injuries, will Arsene risk the Czech from the kick-off if his fitness is less than 90%? Yesterday it was 50:50 according to the manager and whilst his percentages are notoriously wide of the mark at times, he has the Premier League to consider as well as tonight. If Rosicky does start, then Nasri, Diaby and Denilson would probably form the triumverate with Rosicky, Bendtner and Eboue further forward.

Walcott came on to great effect in the first leg but at the weekend, Wenger ventured that it may be worth keeping Theo as an impact substitute noting his relative ineffectiveness at St Andrews the day before and that Abidal, likely to play instead of Maxwell, is more defensively minded and could force Walcott to the periphary of the game, whilst a late appearance tonight may prove as emphatic as last week, taking advantage of a lack of match fitness. Should Rosicky not make it, Walcott may start with Eboue on the left although Eduardo is the more likely with Eboue on the right.

The Barcelona defence is their weak spot this evening and must be taken advantage of. Neither of the central defenders is the first choice and as much as they practice together, their understanding will not be the same as that of Puyol and Piquet. Much is being made of Arsenal’s weakness in the absence of Gallas but Barcelona has their own problems, frequently overlooked as the media eulogises Messi. The absence of Ibrahimovic weakens their forwards. Like Arsenal they have others to replace him. The gap between he and them may be wider but to get into any first team at this level, you have to be half-decent.

The starting line-up I would expect Arsene to go with is:

Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Silvestre, Clichy; Diaby, Denilson, Nasri; Rosicky (Eduardo), Bendtner, Eboue

It is a night for courage from the players, physical and mental. The mistakes of the first leg were easy to see: too respectful, lack of pressure, collective slack marking. All of them were rectified in the final thirty minutes; it is that level of performance which needs to be maintained from the start this evening. If it is not, there may be trouble ahead. Mentally, the players should not be afraid nor should supporters. The team is habitually denigrated in the media, choking as they refuse to acknowledge the title challenge, waiting for the slip. Do not believe the Barcelona hype. The best in Europe? They were last season but that was then, this is now. Time for the young princes to assume the throne.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Barcelona v Arsenal: In Conversation (Part Two)

Bibin from All About FC Barcelona kindly spent some more time ahead of tomorrow’s clash. For those who missed it or if you want to recap, our initial conversation is found here.

ACLF: For once a match lived up to its billing. A disappointing result from Barcelona’s point of view though, wasting a two-goal lead.

Bibin : Absolutely, every Barca fan were really disappointed to see the match end in draw after dominating for most of the time. But life is like that and we have a two precious away goal to play with at Camp Nou. The second leg also will live up to the hype.

Pep Guardiola said afterwards that the first half was the best football Barcelona has ever played in European competition away from home.

No doubt about that. It was not only about the way we played, but the way we dominated.

You were critical in your match report of the 4-2-3-1 formation Guardiola used, correctly noting it left the full backs exposed. But for an hour, everything was going to plan.

Barca was really pressing hard in the first half and that was the major reason why the formation did work well. But if you looked carefully, the attack through wings through Nasri was still happening. But they were really few and far between, because Barca players were pressing really hard.

In the second half, after the second goal we decided to defend the lead and that time that formation was really exposed. In the last interview I have highlighted why I believe Arshavin through the right wing would trouble Barca, but I think Wenger didn’t read that well. And one more thing such a formation takes out that wonderful partnership between Alves and Messi.

Things changed though once Eboue came into the midfield. Suddenly Barcelona had someone challenging them for possession, something Arsenal failed to do in the opening 30 minutes.

Eboue did well to regain possession. But one of the real reasons was the first goal. If you looked carefully, after the first goal Barca looked to have reduced the tempo and then out of blue the brilliance of Xavi created the second goal. So I thought Eboue came at the right time when Barca was reducing the tempo. In the first 20 minutes I firmly believed Eboue also would have struggled, if he was introduced.

Were you surprised at how easily Barcelona dominated the first half? Arsenal gave them too much room to play and did not pressurise the man on the ball. Barcelona did that and won the ball back too often.

It wasn’t a surprise for me. But I am pretty sure that many of the readers of your blog was surprised. Our entire game plan is depended on regaining possession. Actually last season we used to press a lot more.

Did Cesc convince you that Barcelona should sign him? Did he make you even more convinced that they shouldn’t. His booking was an appalling refereeing decision.

I am still holding on to my opinion. It is not because this interview is going to get posted on an Arsenal blog. He was great especially considering his fitness. But for the initial exchanges, Xavi made him look like an Amateur. It was after the introduction of Eboue, Fabregas started to come to his own. May be the fact that he will miss second leg helped in getting most out of him. I said that I preferred not to sign him because he will be under used at Barca, not because he lacks quality. And he could be very costly.

Both Barcelona goals came from long passes over the top of the defence – almost ‘un-Barcelona’ like in their creation.

It’s not a un-Barcelona goal. It’s very much a Barcelona style goal. If you look back to the goals in this season and last one, you will find many goals in the same way – long balls breaking the defense. It is not like the usual long balls used in EPL – long balls releases players on the wings and then they cross to centre. We don’t do that. Whenever Barca use long balls it will be to break defense. Xavi and Iniesta are geniuses in doing that.

Almunia was outstanding on the evening, aside from the first goal. Did that surprise you?

It surprised everyone! I was going through all the articles in the net and media station, everyone is surprised.

Valdes stopped Bendtner equalising with a good save but I think he should have done better with Walcott’s goal.

He should have definitely done better. But those kind of things happen with Valdes.

So to the second leg. Both sides will be missing key players – your entire first choice back four bar Dani Alves is missing. Is this a concern especially since Marques and Milito were together when Sevilla won at the Camp Nou recently.

Missing Pique and Puyol is definitely a concern. Milito is a good cover for both of them, but Marquez is a tad slow. It is really unfair to pin the blame of that defeat on Milito and Marquez. But in that match, it was Milito and Chygynskiy who were at the centre of defense. But we lost that match because Guardiola fielded a second string side – Alves, Chygrynskiy, Milito, Maxwell, Thiago Alcantara, Marquez, Iniesta, Messi, Bojan and Pedro; against a good team.

As far as second leg is concerned, Abidal should be back. So we will most probably have Alves, Marquez, Milito and Abidal in the defense, that is not a bad pairing.

Nasri will most likely replace Fabregas in the middle, a role he has been highly effective in playing in the Premier League. Rosicky would be likely to replace Arshavin. Walcott may come in on the right but it could also be Eboue.

I think Walcott will start on right and Nasri on left. Again it has to be seen whether how effective the midfield will be without Fabregas.

Iniesta may return. Who will make way for him? Should Toure start instead of Busquets, perhaps giving the defence more cover?

Iniesta may not start the match, so I think Guardiola will employ a midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Toure. Iniesta will be called upon if necessary.

Barcelona are favourites to go through but this Arsenal squad has won in The Bernabeu and San Siro in recent seasons. In fact, PSV Eindhoven were the last non-English side to knock Arsenal out, in 2007. Do you think they might repeat such victories?

I don’t think you can honestly compare those teams with this Barca side. To win at camp Nou is very difficult. I am not saying that it is impossible. It is easy to surprise Barca once like the way you did at Emirates, earning a draw. But this time Barca will be more focussed. I back FC barcelona to go through. But it will be another mouth watering contest.

It will be also interesting to see how your young players play at a huge arena like Camp Nou against a truly wonderful team and 97,000 fans. The readers of your blog may say that they don’t care about Camp Nou or 97,000 fans but it is definitely a factor. Not many teams have returned with a win from Camp Nou.

’til Tomorrow.

Stone Cold Friday: Finding Opportunity In The Midst Of Adversity

He’s fearless, intrepid and laughs in the face of danger. Which is just as well because even Indiana Jones wouldn’t venture into his neck of the woods. A place where the men are men and the sheep are worried. Here’s Darius...

Rahm Emmanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, when responding to a question about how Obama’s administration intends to manage the economic crisis said: ”There’s nothing worse than letting a good crisis go to waste”.

If you believe some of the stuff being printed out there about Arsenal’s’ short-comings, you wouldn’t be mistaken to think that we’re a club operating in crisis mode.

With a first choice centre half, a talismanic captain and one of the world’s best strikers in Robin Van Persie out for the season, surely mid-table mediocrity is a position Arsenal should be thankful for?

At least that’s what they say or seem to suggest. To give you an idea about the lengths some media houses will go in their desperation to push ratings and get traffic (to increase their advertising revenue of course), one of them even questioned whether Fabregas had played his last match for Arsenal.

I’ve got to tell you that some people are only alive because it’s illegal to kill. I would have been content with writing up this column for the next 14 years from the library at Belmarsh Prison south of the river if that comment was made in the same room I was in, but I digress.

What is it about this Arsenal team that refuses to go away or refuses to die?

On Wednesday night, I was watching the game against Barca with my wife and a friend. After 20 minutes, my wife went upstairs to watch one of her soaps instead because she was embarrassed for me and couldn’t take the footballing master class the Catalans were dishing out in plenty.

I don’t blame her, believe me – I was tempted to hide under the sofa. I had to be a good host and pretend that what happened in that first 25 minutes was an anomaly.

As the match went on though, I was totally convinced that riding that Spanish inquisition was perhaps one of the best tests of adversity this team has faced. We were playing the best team in the world, a team that admitted that they played the best football they’d ever played in those 45 minutes.

We were put under so much pressure, that the Arsenal team could not retreat or surrender; we had no option but to deal with the relentless pressure. The fact that the entire footballing population around the world who could get to a TV or a radio were probably tuned in did not help in relieving that pressure.

However, this is the key thing. Arsenal survived that onslaught in the first half. The only reason Barca weren’t rolling into the sunset with a 6 nil lead after the first half is because Arsenal defended like their lives depended on it.

It was funny watching Premiership managers give their verdict on the game as they did their routine interviews yesterday. A handful of them praised both Barca and Arsenal for their respective roles in the epic encounter, but the funniest comments came from managers who had suffered the wrath of the Arsenal.

Mick McCarthy for example, took pleasure in pointing out that ”Well, at least Arsenal know how we all feel when we try to play them”.

It’s true; this team has never had to live with being starved of the ball and being made to chase shadows. The fact that they dealt with it and came out of the battle with their heads held up high tells me a lot about how this team has grown up.

We can question the team’s tactics; we can question individual and collective performances. However, it’s becoming harder and harder to question the teams determination, tenacity, character and resolve.

As every obstacle is placed in front of this team, the young men are showing that they feel nothing and will do whatever it takes to find a way around that obstacle.

We face yet another hurdle with the walking wounded who are keeping Colin Lewin and his team gainfully employed. Ordinarily, I would have been concerned about not having our talismanic captain, our big bad Billy G out back, and the lethal streak of Robin Van Persie. Arshavin has some down time to kill while entertaining his website visitors.

In most other clubs I know, injuries to the fulcrum of the team would be considered a crisis and a disaster.

However, this team has yet another opportunity to rise from the ashes and continue with the ’never say die’ spirit that they’ve shown throughout this season.

We have no time to chew fat on the impact Fabregas’ loss will have; Samir Nasri has an unbelievable opportunity to nail a first team place in the Les Bleus squad for the World Cup.

We have no time to ponder which version of Andrey Arshavin will turn up for the match; Eduardo, Vela and Walcott have statements to make to remind the masses that they aren’t just bench warmers.

We have no time to moan about whether Wenger should have risked William Gallas or bought brand spanking new centre half backups; there’s 6 games in the EPL and 4 games in the Champions League that stand between Arsenal and 2 trophies.

Before the season started, we were allegedly destined for the wilderness of mid-table, and the team continue to defy the odds as they refuse to go away.

Of course, some will be quick to point out the short-comings of this team in the familiar defensive pessimism streak. My sense is what the team has done this far demand that we as a collective fan base, rally behind and help carry them through to the finishing line.

If this was the crisis that we are made to believe, I would suggest that those not acknowledging what this team has achieved so far don’t know what success looks like any more.

I’ll be honest with you – the journey this team has taken us through this season is a roller coaster ride and it’s not good for my heart. I wouldn’t have it any other way though.

Is there a sweeter way to victory than to experience adversity and come out on top?

’til Tomorrow

Stirring Fightback Keeps Tie Alive – Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2

UEFA Champions League Quarter Final, First Leg
Arsenal 2 – 2 FC Barcelona

0 – 1 Ibrahimovich (46)
0 – 2 Ibrahimovich (58)
1 – 2 Walcott (69)
2 – 2 Fabregas (85)

Puyol Sent Off (84)

The Sweet summed it up, “And the man in the black said ‘everyone attack'” and Barcelona duly delivered the Blitz straight from kick-off. Well, it was either that or quoting Max’s intro from Hart to Hart, “When they met, it was murder!. Bruised, battered and broken is a description that perfectly fits Arsenal. Subjected to a footballing lesson for the first hour, Arsenal proceeded to deliver a different one with mental strength and two goals in the last twenty minutes, allowing hope’s bright beacon to shine once more.

Those of a certain age must surely join me in wondering if Barcelona’s performance was superior to that of Spartak Moscow, twenty-five years or so ago, as the best performance by an away side at the home of Arsenal in European competition. There was a lesson for the away leg for every team in Europe; press from the kick-off, in numbers, and possession ceded has to be quickly regained. Of course, the requirement is that the squad has the personnel to carry out those instructions. Barcelona has that.

From the start, it was apparent that this would be a match that bucked footballing trends. It lived up to the pre-match sensationalism, too often these encounters turn into damp squibs. The visitors made it clear that the usual cagey opening phases would occur, passing their way through Arsenal at will. This attitude, combined with Arsenal’s inhibitions, allowed superiority to be quickly established by the Catalans.

Manuel Almunia’s critics feared the worst as openings were created; he had the half of his Arsenal career, producing a Herculean string of saves to prevent an early lead being established. Each one saw his confidence increase. Busquests denied from an early corner, a shot turned around the post. Messi, Xavi and Ibrahimovich both found the highly criticised Arsenal ‘keeper too formidable a barrier to pass. When Almunia was beaten, Song provided the cover to head clear. At times, in the opening exchanges, desperate defending was required and provided. When it wasn’t there, Ibrahimovich skied his chance – flagged offside but he did not know that – or put the ball wide.

It took twenty minutes for Arsenal to cause any consternation in the visitors defence. Arshavin teased a cross into the area but Nasri curled an effort just wide of the post, Valdes dive in vain as it would not have prevented the ball entering the net. Bendtner had a presentable chance but proved he keeps good company in missing his chance, shooting straight at Valdes and hitting the post with the rebound; fortunately for the Dane, the flag was raised for offside, his embarrassment spared. Twenty minutes before the interval, Arsene’s gambles with the starting XI started to backfire. Arshavin succumbed to injury and Gallas followed him to the treatment room soon after. Eboue and Denilson entered the fray, Song dropping back to the centre of defence.

Whatever Arsene said at half-time went out of the window immediately. Piquet played a long ball over the top of the high Arsenal backline, Song allowed Ibrahimovich too much space and the Swede duly lobbed the retreating Almunia. Thirty seconds on the clock since the restart, backs that had inched away from the wall were firmly pushed back there. Twelve minutes later Xavi repeated the pass, Almunia held his position and Ibrahimovich hammered the ball home, the ferocity of the strike beating the Arsenal ‘keeper and evoking memories of Gabriel Batistuta’s finish at Wembley.

The goals conceded were scant reward for Almunia’s first half performance. There was little he could do about the second but for the first he is as culpable as Song. Indeed, possibly Almunia’s mistake was to not continue towards the ball, leaving Sagna to cover the goal-line. A point for those who claim the two Poles are better ‘keepers; both have considerable form in rushing from their line.

It should have been over at that point but Arsenal swarmed back. Barcelona ignored the warning Nicklas Bendtner gave them, he should have scored with a free header that Valdes blocked. The introduction of Theo Walcott for Sagna proved pivotal. Three minutes after coming on, he outpaced Maxwell and scored, shooting low under the Barcelona goalkeeper. Valdes should surely have stopped the shot, his reputation, like Almunia’s, tarnished with the occasional lapse.

As much as the visitors outplayed Arsenal in the first half, the screw was now being turned on Barcelona. Cesc overcame his disappointment from his harsh booking and became more involved in the game, having been closely shepparded by Busquets and Xavi. As the final whistle became closer, Messi tested Almunia for the last time. Walcott’s cameo was not over yet. Crossing from the right, Bendtner cushioned the header toward Cesc. The Spaniard wrapped his body around Puyol and drew the clumsiest of interventions from the Barcelona captain. A penalty and a red card, reducing the visitors to 10 men for the remaining time. Fabregas equalised, worsened his injury, limping to the matches conclusion. Post-match, he opened his Readers Digest Medical Manual and self-diagnosed. Hopefully the real opinion will be less severe than his.

A draw which seemed unlikely was achieved through spirit and determination, as much as the realisation that the team were good enough to play their own game. Whilst the introduction of Theo Walcott provided a spark, had he started there is little doubt he would not have been on the pitch to score. Barcelona had starved Arsenal of possession, Nasri reduced to the game’s peripherary by the manner of the visitors approach, Walcott would have fared little better.

The pivotal substitution came with Eboue’s introduction. His desire and energy pervaded the rest of the Arsenal team, pressure exerted onto their opposition with the Ivorian’s efforts. Denilson replacing Song kept the passing balance centrally. Without denigrating either performance, I believe that any substitutions at those times would have been beneficial. Arsenal were too respectful in the beginning which combined with Barcelona’s performance meant they were overrun. Something needed to lift the haze and the changes inspired that.

No doubt the second leg is tough but the tie is not lost. If anyone was in any doubt as to how good Barcelona can be, last night offered the answer. Yet one goal is all that is needed and in recent seasons, this squad has been able to battle in the away fixtures, winning when logic told everyone they should not. A performance that matched the final thirty minutes last night may yet see us through.

’til Tomorrow.

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