All season long these were two teams on completely different trajectories. Barcelona, with most of its players fresh off a World Cup winning summer, stumbled out of the gate, then never looked back. Destroying Real Madrid in the Classico, setting a La Liga record for consecutive victories, all while working their way into the finals of the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and towards the La Liga title. Arsenal, on the other hand, have been on one of the most terrifying of roller coaster rides ever conceived. NASA engineers couldn’t come up with twists and turns this frightening. Blowing a 4 goal second half lead, injuries, a devastating Carling Cup loss in the final minutes, making it to the final 16 of the Champions League, and actually beating “the best football team in the world” after being down a goal.
This 2nd leg of the round of 16 was the epitome of the respective clubs’ seasons.
The first half was all offense by Barcelona. Arsenal came out playing defense only, seemingly tying not to lose. The 2 center backs were extremely busy, and after an early injury substitution, so was the back-up keeper Almunia (who played well enough to get my vote for man of the match). Nasri, in a role reversal, was seen playing defense on Dani Alves, more than he was seen putting balls towards the Barca goal. Attempts by Messi at 12 minutes, and 30 minutes, along with runs by Pedro and David Villa showed the Arsenal midfield was a bit relaxed, but the Koscielny and Almunia kept it close.
Then it all seemed to unravel for Arsenal.
After a couple of studs-up tackles on Barcelona, and Wilshire not appreciating what he saw as acting, Wilshire was fouled hard, then taunted by the Barcelona players. As the rest of the Gunner team came to his aid, Abidal was seen putting his hand to Van Persie’s neck, though no card was given. This scrum seemed to fire up Arsenal in a bad way, because not 3 minutes later, Van Persie was given a yellow card for a foul that was clearly frustration. Barca, feeling the unrest in Arsenal, poured it on at the end of the half, forcing Fabregas into an uncharacteristic mistake at the edge of the box which ended in a sparkling goal by Messi. And even though they were simply one goal away from advancing to the round of 8, Arsenal never touched the ball on Barcelona’s side before the end of the half.
Arsene Wenger was reported to have told his team “Let’s show them how strong we are” during his halftime speech, but it didn’t seem like any of his players heard him. They again sat back, and waited for Barcelona to bring the ball to them. The own goal by Busquets was a result of one Arsenal touch in Barcelona’s end that finished in a corner kick. After the goal, and mind you, Arsenal was moving on the the next round at this point, Arsenal had 3 touches in the offensive zone. Barcelona strangled them with possession. Almunia made outstanding stop after outstanding stop, including a magical save on a Messi and David Villa play at the 53rd minute. Then again, frustration peaked for Arsenal, and the roller coaster plummeted, after Van Persie was given an extremely soft red card for continuing play after he was offsides.
In a 16 minute span, from the goal to make it 1-1, to the goal that sealed it for Barcelona at the 69th minute, Arsenal touched the ball on the offensive side 4 times. It’s curious as to why Wenger chose to play so defensive. Barcelona was playing without their captain center back, Puyol, and started the other back-up defenseman, Mascherano. Adriano is purely an offensive player (and massively overrated in my eyes), but Arsenal refused to push forward until it was almost too late. They way each team reacted to the others’ goal was the perfect indicator of mindset. When Barcelona was down, they pressed forward, they held the ball, and rocked Arsenal to sleep. When Arsenal was down, they reacted with hard tackles, and tried long balls to free only one or 2 runners.
Xavi’s goal at the 69th minute put Barcelona back into an aggregate tie. It was a give and go from Iniesta to David Villa, then back to Xavi for the strike that deflected off of Sagna. It took Arsenal over 5 minutes to do anything on offense, only once controlling the ball for more than 1 touch, culminating in a weak roller to Valdez. Again, the pressure too much, Pedro was tripped by Koscielny driving towards the Arsenal goal, resulting in a penalty kick. Cooly driven home by Messi, that goal gave Barcelona the 4-3 aggregate lead, and with a little more than 10 minutes remaining, they played keep-away.
With Wenger finally pleading from the sideline for his players to move forward (they only needed a goal to advance on away goals), Valdez made a huge save on Bendtner in the 86th minute. Wilshire made a fantastic run and pass through a spotty Barcelona defense that is susceptible to courageous runs, but the keeper was too much. The final whistle coming without any other significant advances by the Gunners.
After hearing that Fabregas and Van Persie would both be starting, I expected Arsenal to come out differently than their first meeting. I thought they would press, get the early lead, then maybe sit back. Didn’t they learn anything from the second half at Emirates? Or was it simply conditioning? Were they too tired physically and mentally after such a draining season that a win or even a tie at the Camp Nou was too much to ask for? Barcelona had the confidence and will of champions all game long, and it wore the Gunners out.
|1||1st Half Goals||0|
|12||Shots on Target||0|
|5||Shots off Target||0|
Champions League Schedule from Sky Sports