Barcelona versus Arsenal, then. This tie might just turn out to have produced a higher acreage of newpaper stories than any other match this season, with comments thrown from one club to the other like hand grenades in the air over the last couple of weeks. The hype has added to the feeling that this isn’t a mere football match being played out this evening. It’s mas que un football match, if you prefer. It’s a match upon which hopes are being rested that aren’t solely to do with the partisanship of club support. Aesthetes are hoping, possibly praying, for a match that will take association football to a new artistic plane. Some are wondering whether the hegemony built up in recent times by Barcelona, who seem to have become something of an embodiment of their club motto over the last five years, can be broken by Arsenal this evening. They didn’t win in last year, but that can be written off as a one-off. Two years in a row, however…
Arsenal, meanwhile, have endured something approaching Champions League purgatory since their participation became seemingly perpetual a few years ago. They arguably had their big chance in the competition in 2006, when they finally, finally made the final in Paris. In that match, they grabbed the lead in Paris after having had their goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, sent off. It was there. It was in their hands… and then came five minutes which perhaps came to define the next five years of both clubs, as Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti scored to turn the match upon its head and take the European Cup back to Catalunya. Since then, Barcelona have become a global powerhouse. Some even dare to suggest, the greatest club side of all time. Arsenal, meanwhile, haven’t quite managed to consistently scale such heights since. Tonight would be a golden opportunity to tip those scales some way back in their favour.
Still, though, the occasion! There are 95,000-odd people in the Camp Nou this evening, and there are probably ninety-five billion people (this is the sort of figure is usually thrown about for this sort of event, usually preceded by the words, “global television audience of”) watching at home. In a thousand years’ time, somebody that lives ten thousand years in the future could be watching it live through a giant telescope. For much of the first half, however, something is missing from this match. It feels flat, a bottle of champagne that has been left in the sun all day at a wedding. Barcelona have the possession – that’s what they do, they have possession – but Arsenal are defending deeply and seem to have them well covered, even after Wojciech Szczesny has to be replaced by Manuel Almunia, seventeen minutes in. With five minutes left to play, however, a little friction, no more than a little light pushing and shoving, finally breeds some oxygen onto the embers of the half.
Adriano had already hit the post, so the warning signs were there. Two minutes into stoppage time, though, Barcelona take the lead with a goal the carries a hint of absurdity about it. Quite what Cesc Fabregas thought he was doing, trying to backheel the ball on the edge of his own penalty area (“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”, as Lisa Simpson once said), but the result was predictable. Three Barcelona players descend upon the ball, Lionel Messi emerges with it, nips around Manuel Almunia and rolls it into an empty net. Barcelona are ahead on away goals. It’s a lead the width of a cigarette paper, but it changes the dynamic of the whole match. Half-time comes with the feeling that there is better to follow.
There is, for Arsenal, seven minutes into the second half. A corner from the right-hand side is slung into the penalty area and… Sergion Busquets, having one of those moments that footballers, it feels, are always prone to having (cf: Cesc Fabregas, 45+2 minutes), heads past his own goalkeeper to bring Arsenal level on the night and into the lead on aggregate. Moreover, the away goal that Barcelona bagged at The Emirates Stadium in the first leg, is now effectively worthless. A second goal for them will take the match into extra-time rather than win it for them. Arsenal haven’t, unbelievably, had a shot on target – they don’t manage one themselves all evening – but they are level at 1-1.
Then comes the sending off of Robin Van Persie. There is an argument – an endless, interminable argument – to be had on the subject of how sendings-off affect the dynamic of games. His red card comes three minutes after Arsenal’s goal. It’s a run through on goal that is whistled for offside. Van Persie takes a shot on goal and turns around to be greeted with a red card. It was a ridiculous decision, of course. On a balance of probabilities, it seems likely that Van Persie could have not heard the referee’s whistle. On top of this, eleven minutes into the second half seems very, very early for a player to be deliberately wasting time. Yet the card is brandished, and it is red. It is a chance that Arsenal have taken – they had four players on yellow cards at half-time, a risky position in which to place oneself in a match in which the simple act of getting the ball from the opposition is likely to be a challenge – but this is the defining moment of the evening. The sixpence upon which this match turns.
For the next fifteen minutes, it looks as if the dam might just hold. Barcelona swarm forward, but the frustration of the home crowd is clearly audible as the Arsenal defence, just about, holds firm. It takes a moment of clear incision to finally cut them open. Iniesta, to Villa, to Xavi who rolls the ball past Almunia and in. It was all so simple – well crafted, tidy football and there surely couldn’t have been a defence in the world that would have been able to do anything about it. Within a couple of minutes, the match is all over when Koscielny brings down Pedro. Lionel Messi – who else? – steps up and gives Barcelona the lead again on, both on the night and on aggregate.
This match, however, isn’t all over. At least, it shouldn’t be. Arsenal only need one goal to snatch the lead back on away goals. It’s not just possible; it’s plausible. At least, it is if Arsenal can get hold of the ball. They have spent much of the match chasing Barcelona like shadows, and with the wind now behind their sails they are taking pot-shots at Almunia. Arsenal now looking as if they are going to struggle to hold onto a mere one goal deficit. There is still, however, time for one final sting in the tail. With five minutes left to play, the body-double sitting in for Cesc Fabregas makes way for Nicklas Bendtner. Two minutes later, Jack Wilshere crosses from the right and Bendtner, misses his mark and fails to make contact with the ball. On such slender margins are matches such as this won and lost. Arsenal are out of the Champions League.
Trying to work out who “deserves” to win a football match can be a maze from which there can be no escape. Was the sending off of Robin Van Persie justified? No. Would it have made any difference to the way in which the match finished? Possibly. But did Arsenal “deserve” to be in the position in which they were at the time of Van Persie’s sending off? Well, probably not. They were, red card notwithstanding, thoroughly outplayed this evening and were arguably flattered by the 3-1 scoreline. And yet, that “What if…” feeling may take a long time to clear from the heads of Arsenal’s supporters this evening. They were there, for almost the whole of the first half. They were there again when they drew level three minutes into the second half. They were there as the ball rolled into the path of Nicklas Bendtner with three minutes to play. But Barcelona are in the quarter-finals of the competition, while Arsenal can now “concentrate on the league”. Football can be tough, like that.
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