Ok, let me get this bit out of the way. Barcelona are a great team, they played 11-a-side 5-a-side better than anyone, they have some of the best players in the world, and I understand why many people see great beauty in their football.
In the first half last night they schooled us. We could barely get near the ball and when we did we pretty much gave it straight back to them. A lot of that was to do with how hard they worked and fair play to them for that. That side of their game is the most impressive to me considering the talent they have in the team. However, they were only ahead because of a mistake. Well, you can’t take away from the quality of Iniesta’s pass or Messi’s finish – which was fantastic – but had Cesc not tried that backheel they wouldn’t have had the ball. Not in that exact position anyway.
I thought we defended very well. Some of it was last ditch, as you would expect against a team of this quality, but apart from Adriano smacking the outside of the post from a very tight angle I don’t remember a single clear cut chance. And after Busquets own goal put us in a winning position they created their only chance when it was 11 v 11, we got opened up down the middle and Villa was through but Almunia, on for the injured Wojscez©®, made the first of a number of fantastic saves.
It was only when they had the extra man that they really turned the screw and that’s not unexpected at all. Barcelona are a difficult team to play against with a full complement, let alone a man short. They were able to find the extra space, take advantage of the tired legs and minds, and only for heroics from Almunia might have scored a hatful. Now, they might well have done that if we’d had 11 men but the two games at the Grove showed that we finish better than they do. There was no way we could do it a man light.
The sending off itself was ludicrous. Robin’s first yellow came after tempers were frayed a little in the first half. After Wilshere was hurt and Barcelona objected to what they considered gamesmanship and time-wasting – yeah, funny coming from them, I know – there was a bit of a scuffle as Wilshere lay hurt. Abidal grabbed van Persie by the throat, no card, and Dani Alves, who is right up there with John Terry as one of football’s most noxious cunts, got involved too.
When play restarted there was a ball to be challenged for, van Persie, still bristling, went for it, barely touched Alves and the jug-eared cunny went down as if he’d been poleaxed. No whistling and jeering for gamesmanship then. Perhaps Robin should have been more careful, this was a ref who was clearly happy to dish out cards to us for the smallest reason, but at the same time who wouldn’t want to have a go at Alves?
So while the first booking was probably avoidable the second was actually amazing. Cesc played a ball over the top, Robin controlled it, the flag went up, the ref blew the whistle and Robin finished with his right foot 1 second later. His eyes never left the ball. Incredibly, Massimo Busacca gave him a second yellow for timewasting/kicking the ball away. 1 second. It was a terrible, terrible decision which, even in the cold light of day, I can’t find any sense in.
Barcelona don’t need that kind of help from referees and Arsenal, already struggling, were always going to find the rest of the game even more difficult. Speaking about afterwards Robin was understandably irate, saying:
How can I hear this whistle with 95 000 people jumping up? It’s a joke. He’s been bad all evening, whistling against us. I don’t know why he’s here tonight. We feel betrayed a bit, when it was 1-1 it was all to play for and in my opinion this referee killed the game.
While Arsene Wenger said:
I just spoke to Uefa people. They are shocked as well as it killed a promising, fantastic match. Frankly it’s embarrassing for the game.
With Arsenal down to 10, Barcelona took full advantage as a team of their quality can. The move for Xavi’s goal was excellent and the penalty was certainly a penalty. In goal, Manuel Almunia stood tall and made a series of excellent saves as Barcelona threatened to score time and time again. And while you can give them credit for the way they play and their performance there’s no doubt in my mind that the red card changed things.
Before the red card, one clear chance on goal. After the red card, countless chances. I’m not saying they we’d have won the game but we were in a winning position and in general, despite all their possession, defending well. Sure, we were being tested but some of the tackling was first class. As soon as we went down to 10 men the pressure was increased and it became more and more difficult for us to find any kind of composure. Maybe I’m viewing this with my Arsenal glasses fully on but that’s why you’re here, right?
And amazingly, there was still time for us to win it. Jack Wilshere’s ball to Nicklas Bendnter in the final couple of minutes needed, and deserved, a better first touch. It allowed Mascherano to get back and defend and while we can certainly have some regrets over that overall I think our biggest regret is the scandalous second yellow for van Persie.
I know people will point to the stats and the attempts but I’d love to get a breakdown of those. How many came pre and post the red card? Not many in the first half, I suspect. In terms of our performance it’s true to say we didn’t get going in the first half but I saw much the same from a more experienced and mature Arsenal team at the Camp Nou in ’99. We got passed off the park in the first half that night too. I thought we were showing some signs of life until Busacca’s intervention, and I just can’t escape the feeling that it would have been different had that not happened.
At 1-1 we were going through. We all knew Barcelona would probably score so it wasn’t a shock when they did, even if the manner of the goal was uncharacteristic of the captain. We all knew we’d probably have to score and we did. Even then Barcelona needed two goals to win outright. If we had a full team I think the outcome would have been different. Or at the very least it would have been much more difficult for them to score the goals they needed. Based on the chances they had at 11 v 11 I think they’d have found it tough.
Even if they scored one we’d have gone to extra time and to me it’s inconceivable that any team could dominate a game for 120 minutes, no matter how good they are. Bussaca has refereed Spanish teams 29 times in his career, they have never lost under his stewardship. A coincidence, probably, but there’s no doubt Barcelona got a helping hand last night. For all Barcelona’s possession Arsenal can feel rightly aggrieved this morning because until the sending off we were coping well with a team who we expected to do exactly what Barcelona did.
We got the away goal, that it was fortuitous doesn’t matter one bit. When Inter ground out a win in the semi-final last season there was no pointing to the fact that Barcelona dominated in terms of attempts on goal, only some media sucking of Mourinho’s knob for the way his team defended.
Overall, disappointing,and annoying, but not heartbreaking. There’s nothing like a bit of outrage to help cope with a defeat. Sometimes it’s misplaced, sometimes it’s easier to use that to take away from flaws elsewhere, but this time I think we’re absolutely right to be fucked off at a shit decision from a shit referee. It won’t change the result, and I suspect we might pick up a ban or two along the way for some of the comments made about the shit referee, but there you go.
In terms of the collateral damage we have to see how costly the game is. Wojscez©® has dislocated his finger and will be assessed to see how long he’s going to be out. If there’s damage to the tendon it could be a season finisher, leaving us with Almunia as our only fit senior keeper. And Cesc has tweaked his hamstring again which could well be costly. The captain said of last night:
I take full blame for the result tonight. One of the worst moments of my life. I apologise.
Which is noble of him and all but it’s a team game. We win as a team, we lose as a team, we get knocked out of the Champions League by a shit referee as a team. Hopefully the injury, picked up early in the first half, isn’t too bad. The Interlull, after the West Brom game, could be very timely indeed because we’ve got quite the run-in to the league season. Anyway, we can worry about that in the days and weeks to come.
We’ve got to lick our wounds, pick ourselves up and prepare for an FA Cup game against Man United at Old Trafford on Saturday. Just the tonic.