Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona: Brilliant Barça beaten

I said in yesterday’s blog that we’ve had the promise of a great European night at the Grove without actually ever experiencing it. I think it’s fair to say that last night we did. The roar at Arshavin’s goal was visceral, borne out of the pain of Paris and Wembley and the Camp Nou, and while it’s only half-time in the grand scheme of things the win last night was hugely significant, in my opinion.

Arshavin goal v Barcelona

The team was as expected, Nasri taking the place of Arshavin, and we started quite brightly. Last season we were on the back foot straight away and while Barcelona kept the ball well after kicking off we certainly gave them something to think about in the opening few minutes. Cesc’s lobbed pass created an opening for Robin van Persie but Valdes stood up well and made a decent save.

Slowly though, Barcelona turned the screw and did to us what they do to teams week in, week out. They pressured us to win the ball back and just kept it. They moved it around, probing for openings and looking to take advantage of mistakes. When Song gave the ball away in midfield Barcelona pounced, creating a glorious chance for Messi. Clean through you’d put your house on him scoring but he clipped his shot just wide. And I mean just. When Eboue carelessly threw the ball into midfield Messi was the winner again, this time his chipped effort was easy for Wojscez.

We played a high line, looking to catch them offside. They used their movement and timing to beat the offside trap. The goal came in the 26th minute, Messi picked it up in midfield, Villa got between the two centre-halves, who had kept their line, but was played on by Gael Clichy and he put it between the keeper’s legs to make it 1-0. Wojscez©® was called on again to make a good save from close range as Barcelona looked to get a second.

Alex Song, who had been booked early for a foul on Messi, was walking a tightrope. To be fair to him every time he went for a tackle the Barcelona players fell over but he didn’t do himself any favours by throwing his arms up in the air in an act of dissent towards the ref. I was worried he wouldn’t see half-time. I thought our passing was quite careless in the first half and we weren’t quite decisive enough – an extra touch from van Persie meant a good chance was spurned.

It might have been 2-0 at half-time but for a fantastic Wojscez©® save from Pedro and the follow-up from Messi being ruled offside. At that point Arsenal had retreated, under intense pressure, and I felt we were sitting too deep and allowing them to have it too easily. Half-time came at the right time for us.

We were better early on in the half, Jack Wilshere got forward to have a shot from the edge of the box, but at times we couldn’t get near the ball. Koscielny read the game well at the back and made some excellent tackles and interceptions, we forced some corners and got forward enough to see Pique booked for a rash challenge on Cesc. He now misses the second leg.

For me the changes with about 20 minutes to go were a big factor in the result. Barcelona took off David Villa and put on Keita, a defensive midfielder. It seemed odd to me. With Arsenal having to press for an equaliser the threat of Villa would at least have made us more cautious. Guardiola obviously felt his team could hang on to the 1-0. At the same time Arsene’s choice of Arshavin to replace Song was brave. He moved Nasri back into midfield and the Russian played further forward.

It didn’t stop them being dangerous though. When Eboue gave the ball away on the edge of our box Barcelona reacted quickly, played in Messi but his shot hit the side netting. They kept the ball, and kept the ball, and kept the ball, we couldn’t get near it at times. Bendtner came on for Walcott to give us a different outlet while Wilshere forced a corner off Abidal after a great run.

Then the equaliser – Arshavin had it on our left, in the Barcelona half, played it back to Gael Clichy whose right foot is normally just for standing on. He made up for his part in the first goal with a lovely ball over the top to Robin van Persie. The angle was tight, there was no way he could shoot from there and … oh, there was a way he could shoot from there. He slammed it home at the near post. Valdes had moved off his line, anticipating a ball across the box, van Persie went for it and it was both power and precision. 1-1.

It was the lift the team and the fans needed and within five minutes we were ahead. It’s an interesting goal when you look back at it. Djourou gave the ball away and it was very, very dangerous for a few moments. We were outnumbered, I think, but in the end some fantastic defending from Koscileny won it back. From there it was just outstanding football.

Koscielny played it to Bendtner who, under real pressure from Barcelona players, fizzed it across midfield to Wilshere who played a first time pass to Cesc, he controlled and turned in one movement and played it in behind to Nasri who drove into the Barcelona box. He waited, cut inside, saw Arshavin coming, saw Alves not bothering to chase back, and played it perfectly into his path. The Arshavin of a few weeks ago might have blasted it out of the stadium, this Arshavin curled it in first time to make it 2-1.

On ITV that dope Clive Tyldsley said “A Barcelona goal … by Arsenal”. How patronising, the cunt. It was an Arsenal goal against Barcelona. It was a thing of beauty. A move started when Koscielny’s defending won the ball back, accurate passing from back to front, and a deadly finish. If Barcelona had scored that against us you wouldn’t be able to pick up your newspaper this morning for the reporter spunk dripping from it. A really, really great goal, and one in the traditions of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, not some cheap Ramblas made Barcelona knock-off.

There was still enough time for more danger. An Arshavin header back to Wojscez©® didn’t find the keeper and, on replay, looked to have come off his arm, but we got men behind the ball and eventually got it clear. I’d be lying if I said the two minutes of injury time seemed to take an eternity. They flew by and when the ref blew the final whistle you could feel how much this meant. There’s been a lot of pain down the years inflicted by Barcelona and while there’s still another game to play at their place you have to enjoy the moments that football gives you. This really was one of them.

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona
pic via @Tottz82

And what made it all the sweeter was that we beat them when they played well. This was no off night for Barcelona, but we held on, and showed great spirit and ability to get ourselves back into it. It’s a night that will live long in the memory and rightly so. Afterwards Arsene said:

It is a special lift for my team. Our players have shown exceptional strength tonight and togetherness. am proud for Arsenal Football Club. Everyone urged us to play differently to our nature so it is good. I believe that it can strengthen the belief in our philosophy. We are 23 years old – our average – the average age is very, very young. It is very promising for the future.

You know, if Arsenal had lost there’d be little said other than yet another team failed to live with the best team on the planet, but a win, while still only half the job, is something to be savoured. I wonder what it will do for the team’s belief and confidence, knowing that they’re capable of a result like this. You cannot do anything but take the positives from it and use them for the rest of the season.

Barcelona were brilliant last night. The way they keep the ball is so difficult for the opposition to cope with. The concentration you need and the effort you have to put in to a) try and win it back and b) stopping them creating chances when they have it shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s incredibly hard to deal with, physically and mentally. We had our shaky moments but that’s only to be expected. I thought the team, as a whole, played well but might have been a bit more sensible in possession at times. I thought we rushed things, anxious to make an impact instead of slowing it down a bit and just keeping the ball.

That’s not to be critical but perhaps it’s a lesson we can learn. For me there were two outstanding performances on the night. At the back Laurent Koscielny had an excellent game, reading it well, tackling and distributing it well, and when you consider the quality of the players he was up against he deserves major kudos this morning. And in midfield Jack Wilshere had a coming of age performance. I remember people saying the same about Cesc when we played Real Madrid at the Bernebeu, this was very similar, both in terms of the performance and the stage on which it was delivered.

Last night Jack was up against Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and was absolutely fantastic. He was as calm as you like when he had it, worked hard to deny them space when they were in possession, and he put in a serious shift in midfield. When you consider this is his first full season and that he’s just gone 19 it was remarkable. I couldn’t find any Arsenal player ratings in the Spanish press but, quite typically, Sport has a piece asking readers ‘Which Arsenal would you sign?’, and Wilshere gets more than a few mentions.

Unscientific, I know, but there you go. The young man described it as his best night ever for Arsenal and I think it was. Yet this is only the start of his Arsenal career, there are going to be many more like it and hopefully a lot more that will surpass it.

From a fan’s point of view, well, what can you say? The 60,000 who were there saw something a bit special. If I had goosebumps at the noise of the crowd then I can only imagine what it was like inside the ground. We know there’s the second leg, we know Barcelona will fancy their chances at home, we still know how good they are, but what we also know is that we can beat them. And they know that too.

Today, however, is not a day for worrying about what might happen at the Camp Nou. It’s a day to just be happy at what we saw last night. If you’re not on a cloud of boilky smiley awesomeness this morning then I feel a bit sorry for you.

Look at it again. Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona. That, my good old chums, is worth feeling good about at any stage. Well done the lads, well done the manager, that was epic.

You reds!

Finally, I just want to say thanks to Steve at Tagadab for help last night with our new live blog, much appreciated. Go there if you need web hosting and do join us for live blogs in the future (especially now that they’re really obviously very lucky and the only reason we won).

And remember, highlights (courtesty of Arsenalist) can be found on the Video Page.

Have a good one, back tomorrow with an Arsecast.

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