Archive for April 3rd, 2010

Arsenal 2 – 2 Barca: The Price of Hope

3 comments April 3rd, 2010

GS, 2nd April, Rome

Arsenal 2 – 2 Barcelona
Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a most extraordinary game of football. Extraordinary for the brilliance of Barcelona’s first half performance, which should have seen them four or five goals to the good. Extraordinary too for the heroics of Manuel Almunia, who kept Arsenal in a game they had seemingly been played out of. And extraordinary for a comeback, inspired by an ailing yet determined captain, that seemed less likely than a mauling.

If Wednesday night’s fixture against his boyhood team marked the apogee of Cesc Fabregas’ season, at least he’ll be able to say he went out on a high. A first-half yellow card meant he knew he wouldn’t be able to play at the Nou Camp on Tuesday. A second-half injury to his fibula means he won’t play again this season.

And yet his performance was characteristic of a team who more than once this season have shown the stomach to fight back when despair has beckoned. At 2-0 down to the world’s best keep-ball side – arguably simply the world’s best side – it would have been easy to roll over. Just as it would have been easy to give up when nine or eleven points behind the league leaders, or when Aaron Ramsey’s leg was snapped so cruelly at Stoke. Just as Sol Campbell must have trudged off the pitch in his solitary game for Notts County and wondered whether or not it was worth continuing with this football business. He fought back. Arsenal fought back. And last night, with the pain of missing the Nou Camp swiftly followed by the pain of a fractured leg, Fabregas fought back.

It shouldn’t have been possible. Football connoisseurs expected an exhibition at the Emirates, but they couldn’t have predicted it would be quite so one-sided. Barcelona were stunningly good, and a dazed Arsenal barely got in to their stride. The dizzying tic-tac of Catalan passes had Arsenal heads spinning, and only profligacy on the part of Barca and some outstanding reaction saves from Manuel Almunia prevented the tie from being out of reach.

Arsenal weren’t helped by injuries to two key players – Arshavin and the returning Gallas both picked up calf problems that should keep them out for a few weeks each. They were replaced by Eboue and Denilson, as Arsene sought to overload the side with workmen to combat the artistry we were facing.

Incredibly, we scraped through to half-time at 0-0, and you just hoped that a rallying team-talk from Arsene might turn the tide. Sadly, it was not to be: within a minute of the re-start a simple clipped ball through saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic through on goal and Almunia stranded way off his line. The Swede’s finish was befitting of his price-tag.

The same was true of his second – a thumping cannonball of a shot in to the top corner after he had crept in behind Thomas Vermaelen. Arsene was furious with the Belgian, berating him for stepping up and leaving Ibrahimovic unattended. The nature of his criticism was unusually vociferous and personal – here was a man watching his team be dismantled.

“Goodnight Arsenal”, proclaimed the commentator. And so it should have been. But at that moment Arsene introduced Theo Walcott, who, in front of the watching Fabio Capello, was clearly determined to stay up beyond his commentator-allocated bedtime.

He immediately targeted Maxwell – possibly Barca’s weak link – and worried him with his pace and direct running. Indeed, it was Walcott who made the tie a contest again, latching on to an inch-perfect pass from Bendtner and side-footing powerfully through the parry of Victor Valdes.

Suddenly, Arsenal believed. Barca were not invincible. What’s more, for the first time in the game, we were able to put together some sustained periods of possession. With ten minutes to play, a cross in to the box was nodded down by Bendtner in to the path of Fabregas. Cesc’s legs were entangled with those of the opposition skipper – accidental no doubt, but once the whistle had blown the result was inevitable: penalty and a red card for Carlos Puyol, who will join Gerard Pique as suspended on the sidelines for the second leg.

Cesc stepped up to take a penalty which he knew would be his final contribution to the tie – if not the season. Placing all the stength he had remaining behind his injured right leg, he hammered his shot in to the net. What it lacked in precision it more than made up for in power. Arsenal were level, and pride was intact.

It means we go to Cataluna knowing that a win in that game will see us through to the semi-finals. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Crucially, we have hope, which even the most stringent optimists must have felt was disappearing with an hour of the first-leg gone.

But at what price? Arsenal have lost Fabregas for the remainder of the season – a gigantic blow to both domestic and European hopes. Arshavin and Gallas too will miss several weeks – key losses at both ends of the pitch. To triumph on either front now would be a remarkable achievement. Wednesday’s clash was exhausting, mentally and physically, and Chelsea and United will now be glancing less nervously over their shoulder. The pounding of Arsenal hooves is growing quieter.

Yet they’d be foolish to write us off. Reinforcements are arriving in the form of Robin van Persie, and Arsenal’s remaining domestic games are still winnable – Cesc or no Cesc. As for the game at the Nou Camp, it’s a one-off cup tie. If an underdog can triumph on any stage, it is there.

On Wednesday night, Cesc martyred his season to let hope live. It would be damned ungrateful of us to do anything other than seize it. Come On You Gunners.

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