Heroic performance. Magnificent result. Half the job done.
I was worried pressing higher up the pitch will leave Arsenal exposed but in the end the result justifies the manager’s approach and the players deserve immense credit for fighting all the way till the end to achieve this win. It also shows how little I know but in this case I’m delighted to be proven wrong. I have no doubt this game would have taken a lot out of all the players but the feeling at the end more than makes up for it.
In some ways it was a very predictable game. Barcelona had a lot of the ball but Arsenal chased them and put pressure on their passing. In the first 10-15 minutes the Catalan side were a bit rattled and their passing wasn’t working that well. Arsenal dominated that period in terms of pressure and created a great chance when Cesc played a Laudrupesqe chip for Van Persie. The angle was too tight for the Dutchman and Valdes was able to save it.
Even then the visitors were always dangerous on the break and Song picked up a booking in the 7th minute for a cynical foul to stop Messi on a counter.
After the first quarter-hour had gone Barcelona settled into their rhythm better. Soon after Messi was clean through on goal but chipped it wide. Guardiola’s side were looking more likely to score but Arsenal looked dangerous every time Walcott got a chance to run at the defence. In one such move Theo played Fabregas in and El Capitan crossed towards the back post. Abidal just got his head on the ball as Van Persie was about to head home.
In the next minute Arsenal conceded at the other end when Messi was able to run with the ball towards the defenders. Clichy took a step back but the central defenders held their line. That was enough for Villa to sneak in behind. I was a bit disappointed Djourou wasn’t on the half-turn to track the run but it all happened at such pace it’s difficult to criticize the defenders. Szczesny conceded through his legs as his rare technical weakness was exposed. Still I don’t want to blame any individual for the goal. Against Barcelona an odd mistake here or there always proves costly for all teams. By and large Arsenal did catch the opponents off-side so the defenders did a good job under pressure.
For the rest of the first half Arsenal tried hard to get back into the game but Barcelona were always in control and were looking more likely to score the second. Song was really lucky to get away with a number of fouls without picking up a second booking. As an Arsenal fan I was happy with the ref’s decision making but if an opponent had gotten away with it I’d have been furious.
During the first half, Barcelona were able to bring the ball out down the right with ease. Alves was almost always unmarked but Arsenal did a decent job of closing him down the defensive third.
In the second half the Gunners came out with even more effort and determination. In contrast, Barcelona moved into second gear and didn’t show any real attacking purpose. Their final balls were lazy and the runs weren’t as good as we normally see.
Arsenal created a number of half chances but never really got enough bodies forward. Guardiola’s men were back in numbers every time Arsenal broke forward. It also looked like Van Persie was having an off day and Valdes looked quite comfortable in goal.
At the other end Messi hit the side netting from a tight angle and Koscielny did well to recover after Pedro got in behind. But it was clear Barcelona weren’t as threatening as the first half. Part of it was down to better intensity from Arsenal and part was probably down to the fact that the visitors were tiring or taking it easy.
With little over 20 minutes to go Arshavin came on for Song. Minutes later Bendtner came on for Walcott. The game turned on its head in the 77th minute. Arshavin played to Clichy who’d come forward. The full back played an incredibly deft chip with his right leg that put RvP in behind. The angle looked too tight and I was looking for a cross that will find Bendtner’s run. The Dutchman had other ideas and squeezed it in between the Keeper and his near post from a near impossible angle. Valdes looked like a clueless clown as the ball hit the back of the net.
The goal roused the crowd and it looked like Barcelona were rudely awakened from their slumber. But they never really got going despite pushing forward in search of a winner.
The second came after some good work at the back. Arsenal brought the ball out with composure. Wilshere found Cesc whose turn and pass reminded me of Zidane. The through ball for Nasri was perfect but the Frenchman was a bit wide and had three defenders chasing back. Nasri kept a cool head and played a perfectly weighted square pass to find the onrushing Arshavin. The Russian’s finish was pure class.
The visitors tried to equalize but Arsenal had enough bodies at the back to block and tackle. Arshavin had an iffy moment when he messed up a defensive header but Szczesny did well to close Alves down without conceding the foul.
In the end I thought Arsenal deserved the win for their endeavour and finishing while Barcelona deserved to lose for what I perceived was their arrogance and casualness.
Szczesny: Excellent goalkeeping for most parts. Never looked nervous or indecisive. Has one weakness as he jumps in a one-v-one situation which will lead to a number of goals between his legs unless he improves his starfish technique.
Eboue: Deserves credit for a good defensive performance. Was quite confident on the ball. The only criticism would be that he didn’t always make the right decisions when he got forward but that wasn’t a surprise.
Djourou: Pretty good for most of the game. Made one or two poor passes that could have led to trouble.
Koscielny: Absolutely brilliant. Very good on one-v-ones, read the game well, covered behind Clichy and bailed Djourou out when he gave the ball away in a dangerous position. Didn’t lose his concentration even for a moment. Good composure on the ball and played some intelligent passes.
Clichy: Decent job of defending the left given that he was outnumbered on occasions. Will be criticized for the goal but I don’t blame him. Sublime assist for the goal.
The back five did really well under pressure. Messi was able to run at them on a number of occasions but they managed to keep him out which is a big achievement that many will not fully appreciate.
Song: Chased the ball a lot. Was technically the weakest midfielder on the pitch and it showed a bit. Deserves credit for his effort but was lucky to be on the pitch at half-time.
Cesc: One chip that reminded me of Michael Laudrup, a turn that brought back memories of Zidane. Initially his passing was a bit off but got better as the game went on. Put in a big shift all over the pitch. Loved the way he interacted with the crowd.
Wilshere: Mindblowing. And I’m not exaggerating. What a game from the youngster. Easily his best for Arsenal so far. Showed excellent technique and awareness of his surrounding, passing was wonderful, used his body really well to get past people even when under serious pressure. Fair amount of defensive work as well.
The midfield put in a tremendous shift and made up for the lack of possession with determination, concentration, and hard grind.
Walcott: Was dangerous every time he got a chance to run at the Barcelona defence but I thought Arsenal’s high pressing meant that he didn’t get many chances of doing that.
RvP: Missed a number of half chances but turned it around with a wonder strike. Worked hard all over the pitch and helped the team out by dropping deep when required.
Nasri: Another one who wasn’t having a great game early on. Was able to sustain possession but lacked the cutting edge. Made up for it all at the end with a well weighted assist.
The front three weren’t getting much time or space for most of the game. I liked the way they kept plugging away and kept trying their luck.
Subs: Arshavin put in a good shift and scored a peach. Bendtner didn’t get much time but his presence in the box made a difference.
I don’t know how many of you read this article yesterday but the guy, Rohan Ricketts, predicted a 2-1 in for Arsenal with RvP, Arshavin and Villa as the goal scorers!
It’s a big win but the job hasn’t been completed just yet. A bigger, sterner test will come three weeks later at the Camp Nou. For the time being though we should savour this performance and hope that it will serve as the perfect inspiration for the Cup Final.
PS: Was anyone else annoyed this phenomenal performance and result is being mentioned in the same breath as the Tiny Totts’ win over the relics of Milan?