Because sometimes, the scoreboard is the headline.
The Emirates Stadium was born in 2006. Last night, we baptised it with one of Arsenal Football Club’s greatest nights.
I was incredibly privileged to witness it in person. Fans who have been thrown together by the stadium move, who take their seats among strangers without a greeting or a handshake, were arm-in-arm. A club is a community, and a community is built on shared experiences. Last night, we all shared a remarkable one.
Arsenal beat the best team in the world. The best team of a decade, a generation, and maybe more. And what makes it all the better is that we didn’t triumph over a weakened Barcelona line-up. They didn’t fail to perform. Far from it: they were superb. Their possession play and ability to split the defence drew gasps of admiration from the Emirates crowd.
And yet we beat them.
And we did it our way. We didn’t batten down the hatches and hope to catch Barca on the break. We went forward and tried to outscore the greatest attacking team in living memory. We did it our way: The Arsenal way.
If there was any dark corner of the world where our team was still regarded as the functional war machine it was in the early 90s, then that preconception was consigned once and for all to ancient history last night as we took the very best on at their own beautiful game, and won.
I’ve tried to avoid the newspapers, and tv punditry. The reason is simple: this is our victory. Every Arsenal fan I’ve spoke to since full-time seems to understand that. What other people say and think doesn’t matter. To a degree, what happens in the second leg doesn’t matter. Whatever happens in Barcelona, the significance of last night will continue to reverberate.
The bits of punditry I have seen have been predictable. BBC Breakfast news just told me that Barcelona ‘outclassed’ Arsenal. What tosh. I’ve admitted already that Barcelona were outstanding. As last year, I was in awe not only of their tiki-taka pass-and-move style, but also at how hard they work to win the ball back. At times our centre-backs had no choice but to go back to the rookie goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny. There was no way forward.
That feeling was compounded when Barcelona took the lead. A through-ball from Messi found David Villa, played onside by Gael Clichy. His finish was typically cool, but in the stadium blood was boiling. Fans were convinced Villa was offside – a suspicion compounded by the fact no replays of the goal were shown in the stadium.
That led to a fractious finish to the first-half, in which Alex Song walked a very fine tight-rope. Having been booked for a tactical foul on Leo Messi in the first five minutes, he was arguably lucky to stay on the pitch for a succession of late tackles. Barcelona move the ball so quickly, that drawing fouls is an inevitable consequence of their style.
Despite Barca’s lead, we’d shown plenty in the first half to suggest the second would remain an even contest. Robin van Persie had forced Victor Valdes in to a save at his near post, whilst only a flying header from Eric Abidal prevented the Dutchman from nodding in to an empty net.
Arsenal have plenty of ability, but when you’re up against players of this class you need to earn the right to show it. Not only that, but you have to gamble. Arsene Wenger took a serious risk by removing Song and bringing on Andrey Arshavin. Our midfield was now one of Wilshere, Nasri, and Fabregas – none of which are defensive players. We were taking the game to Barcelona.
It was an all-or-nothing strategy, and this morning it really feels like we took it all. We had to be patient in our quest for an equaliser, but when it came it was a stupendous strike from Robin van Persie. Gael Clichy clipped a right-footed (yes, I know) pass in to the penalty area, but the ball seemed to be running away from Van Persie and out of play. Incredibly, he lashed the ball form the narrowest of angles in to Valdes’ near-post. The keeper was perhaps at fault, but it was an audacious strike.
Robin celebrated by running down the touchline and embracing his manager, Arsene Wenger. This was, in many respects, Arsene’s victory. His substitutions were perfect, his philosophy was enforced, and his academy players flourished.
Five minutes later we had the winner. It felt inevitable by then. A red-and-white tide was sweeping back the Catalan Armada. In the first half I’d been impressed with Barca’s work-rate and stamina. But they’re not used to keeping it up. Most teams flounder and roll over under such sustained pressure. Not Arsenal.
We smelt blood, and we went for it. And if Barcelona had scored our second goal, then it’d be revered as a great. Fortunately, they didn’t: it’s ours.
Cesc released Samir Nasri down the right, the Frenchman showing no signs of the hamstring injury that had forced him to miss two weeks of action. As substitute Bendtner charged in to the box, Nasri held on to the ball and checked back inside, laying it in to the path of the onrushing Arshavin. As the Russian’s curled effort hit the net, I have to admit I welled up with pride. Arsenal had done it.
There was still time for a few moments of panic, but Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny saw us through. Both are in their first season of Champions League football – this was Szczesny’s European debut – and yet you’d never know it. Commanding and calm, they gave assurance to a back-line missing the oh-so-reliable Bacary Sagna.
There were fantastic performances all over this pitch. Xavi has talked a lot about Barca DNA. Well, Cesc might have Barcelona in his blood, but he’s got Arsenal in his heart. Last night, he led his team superbly, cajoling his team-mates and the crowd in to raising the tempo ever higher.
And what of Arsenal DNA? In Jack Wilshere we have a young man who is Arsenal through-and-through. He was incredible last night – the best player on the park. I have never seen an English player so comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces. His passing was immaculate and his commitment as wholehearted as ever. It is true (and the ultimate compliment) that if he had been playing in the red and blue of Barca, he wouldn’t have looked a jot out of place. At 19.
I’m so proud. Proud of Jack, proud of the team, and proud of the fans, who were also fantastic. Granted, there’s a big game coming up at the Nou Camp, but for now let’s savour one of our finest hours.
By far the greatest team, the world has ever seen.
And it’s Arsenal.
To celebrate last night’s win, we’ve got a couple of free desktop wallpapers for you, one denoting Jack Wilshere and his ‘Arsenal DNA’, and another in Praise of Songs.
Simply click the image above and then download from the link at the bottom of the page.
I know the Jack design has been particularly popular in the light of last night, with some people asking if we could get it in to production as a shirt. We’re working on it – keep your eyes peeled for more news later today.
Go, enjoy your day. You don’t get a trophy just for beating Barcelona. But you probably should. That’s how good this feels.
Thankyou Arsene, and thankyou Arsenal.