And so it begun, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated match of the world football season so far and a replay of the most exciting match of last year, although with a fuller strength Arsenal this time – and one with something very much to prove – not even the most optimistic Barça fan would presume to see as one-sided a tie as that of last year. What most Barça fans would not have expected was to see their side so mirror the last match by squandering numerous chances in the first half before capitulating two goals late in the game to leave only a David Villa away goal as a prize to take back for the second leg at the Camp Nou.
The first ten minutes signalled Arsenal’s intent, with their back four pushing high up the pitch to squeeze the midfield and mirroring Barça’s own tactics of heavy pressure in recovering the ball. An early high tackle on Xavi within the first 2 minutes and a yellow card for Alex Song for a foul on Messi within the first 10 minutes also showed that Arsenal would be willing to get physical and would not be playing with any fear. Barça, of course, from the start were quick to show how they like to play football: quick interchange of passing, our own pressure on the ball, and the fullbacks forward at every opportunity. With space so compressed in midfield neither team strung many passes together and it produced a nail biting first ten minutes with the ball breaking out of midfield, with Messi’s acceleration disquieting the opposition back line and only Djorou’s reactions blocking a Villa run on goal, however it was Arsenal who looked the more dangerous, with the pace of Walcott and Van Persie and also good passing between Nasri, Fabregas and Wilshere around the box reminding of Barcelona themselves playing at the Camp Nou. The best chance of this early period came on the 7th minute with Walcott showing both his speed and dribbling skills, before passing to Fabregas who chipped a ball over the back line to Van Persie, whose rocket of a shot was blocked well by Valdes.
Barcelona, however, are not used to not having possession and worked hard to pressure Arsenal and soon begun to relax into their familiar groove of nice triangles played around midfield, full use of the back four with Valdes as an extra man, and Villa, Messi and Pedro beginning to interchange well. On the 14th minute Messi was played through on goal by a lovely pass from Villa, and Messi did well to send Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to ground, however Messi’s chip, which cules are so used to seeing floating into the back of the net, drifted wide of the far post. A good pass through the backline from Iniesta to Villa was snuffed out by another quick take by Szczesny. By halfway through the first half Barcelona had increased their possession to 60% however Arsenal looked the more dangerous on the break, with the ball swept out to Walcott on the right or Nasri on the left. On the 25th minute, Arsenal broke and were three on three with the defence before Fabregas received it wide and a dangerous cross was just cleared from the onrushing Van Persie by a decisive header from Abidal on the six yard box. But then, in the very next minute, Messi received the ball in the middle of the park, accelerated towards the box before slipping a pass through to Villa who, without taking a touch, played a clean strike under the onrushing Szczesny and sent the travelling fans into jubilation. 1-0 Barcelona.
Arsenal continued to compete for the remainder of the half and their physicality showed their intent with Song being lucky to not see a second yellow card with numerous aggressive challenges, however the majority of chances came to Barcelona, in particular a Dani Alves’s break on the right which came to Pedro but his flick was parried by the busy Szczesny. On the 37th minute nice interplay between the front three led to Pedro shooting close to Szczesny, his parry deflected off Pedro and came to Messi who with a diving header sent the ball into the back of the net. The goal was incorrectly disallowed as Messi was behind Pedro both for the parry off the keeper and the subsequent deflection off Pedro. At the whistle the game was still competitive but Barcelona looked the more likely to stretch their lead.
There were no changes at the start of the second half and Arsenal came out showing renewed vigour and Jack Wilshere seemed continually the man with some space to play; a nice one-two with Van Persie led to a snatched shot from the edge of the box from the 19 year old within the first five minutes of the resumption of play. Barcelona however remained in the driving seat, with more possession, more passes (nearly double), more passes successfully completed, and a number of good chances including a charge from Pedro into the area before being bundled off the ball by Koscielny (a possible penalty but never likely to be given in a game of this magnitude) and Messi played through on the left but Szczesny quickly closed the angle and forced Messi to place his shot wide into the side netting, however – and caveats seem the order of the day with this match – Arsenal still looked dangerous and slowly the balance begun to shift. Substitutions on the 67th minute indicated each respective coach’s intentions, with Villa coming off for Keita (a more defensive move with Iniesta moving forward to the left) and Song making way for Arshavin (an attacking midfielder coming on for a defensive one). Nine minutes later Wenger cemented his intent by bringing Bendtner on for Walcott – a striker for a winger. Then in the 78th minute from a seemingly innocuous position Gael Clichy and Arshavin interchanged on the left before Clichy chipped a ball towards the area, which Van Persie latched onto and from the byline thrashed a cross-come-shot towards goal that beat Valdes at his near post and went into the goal. Valdes was only forgivable in that I don’t think even Van Persie knew whether he was shooting or crossing.
Barça tried to rally and pressed forward, however their passing continually broke down within the area through some determined and well organised defending and a lack of precision and lethal intent. Then on the 83rd minute as another Barça attack broke down the scramble to recover the ball left our midfield bunched in the middle of the pitch leaving Arsenal space to break with Nasri charging down the wing on the right before having the composure to stop and cut the ball back across the area to the oncoming Arshavin, who too had the composure to watch Valdes moving one way and pass the ball the other into the back of the net. From a position of dominance, in five minutes Barcelona was 2-1 down.
The team battled on and placed a lot of pressure on their opposition but it never seemed to particularly threaten and Arsenal still looked as likely to score another on the break to perhaps leave the tie unrecoverable. Adriano came on in the 88th minute for Iniesta but at this late stage it was unclear what the change was meant to effect; hopefully Iniesta has not received a knock. Barcelona had a good shout for a penalty after Arshavin handled the ball in the area from a cross meant for Dani Alves. There were two minutes of added time and then that was that. Arsenal 2, Barcelona 1.
Barcelona may have played more passes but Arsenal arguably played the more meaningful passes, more direct, and moved more successfully and more quickly into the attacking third providing their players with more space from which to threaten. Barça’s passing was good, but rarely was it lightning quick, and a good display from a much questioned Arsenal backline meant that most Barça moves were smothered through the centre. Arsenal were happy to cede us space on the wings and this strategy was only helped by poor performances from Dani Alves and Maxwell going forward, although both should be commended for managing to maintain their defensive duties; Maxwell certainly did not have the torrid time dealing with Walcott that he did last year. Abidal had a good game, and Xavi and Busquets were excellent, but Iniesta underwhelmed, Villa was relatively quiet aside from his goal, as was Pedro, and Messi was so much less than his sublime best. Much of this is to the credit of Arsenal, and had some excellent individual displays, including the mentioned Jack Wilshere, the ever influential Cesc Fabregas, and in particular Laurent Koscielny, however the whole team showed more guts than they are often credited with and Wenger’s attacking substitutions when a goal behind seemed to be the necessary caution thrown to the wind to further press his team forward. Pep Guardiola’s substitutions seemed conservative in comparison, and to be fair to him would probably be described as sensible if not for the fact that his team lost, although if the team were to really commit to a more defensive formation, perhaps a slight change of shape and the introduction of Mascherano who has much familiarity with Arsenal rather than Keita may have been a better move?
Looking to the next leg, Barcelona has an away goal and need score just one goal at the Camp Nou to take the tie. Gerard Pique, however, received a yellow card for a foul on Fabregas that will mean he will miss the return leg so unless Puyol progresses sufficiently to return this will leave our backline severely diminished, with either an out-of-form Milito or Busquets standing in. The tie can definitely still be won – in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Barcelona remain the bookie’s favourites – however we will need our side to step up its game, create more telling chances, and take them far better when they come. Playing as we did tonight and on Saturday against Sporting Gijon the team cannot lay claim to the mantle of the world’s best, let alone one of the all time greats. I expect that at the return at the Camp Nou we will see the true mettle of our team again.
Valdes 6.5, Alves 5.5, Pique 6.5, Abidal 7.5, Maxwell 5.5, Busquets 8, Xavi 8, Iniesta 6.5, Pedro 6.5, Messi 7, Villa 7., Keita (m68, 6), Adriano (m89 -)
Yellow cards Song 8th minute, Nasri 28th, Iniesta 31st, Pique 59th, Van Persie 85th
Red cards: none
Goals: David Villa 26th minute, Robin van Persie 78th, Andrey Arshavin 83rd