Why Can’t Both Teams Lose The Champions League Final

May 28, 2011

That’s the sad part of the biggest game of the season I guess. One of the two teams will go home as winners. I am finding it hard to pick a team to support and that will make watching the game that much more difficult.

When the same sides met each other three years ago it was easy to support Barcelona. Since then the antics and attitude of the various members of the club, from the players to the board, has been classless and shameful to put it politely. And I don’t have to remind gooners how intolerable United can get.

It will take me a long time to condition myself in order to focus on the game and not on the players/clubs. Those who will succeed in watching the game for the sake of football will find a lot to observe. Such a game might not be an enthralling end-to-end contest, but it will have immense educational value.

Many consider Barcelona to be favourites but I feel this game will be a very close battle with an odd moment of magic or individual mistake settling the tie in a 1-0 result. That’s another disappointing aspect of these big games; they tend to be cagey affairs with very few memorable moments.

Fergie will undoubtedly send his team out to stifle the opponents. It is their single biggest strength so we will get an excellent example of how to keep a defence organized even against the best of attacks. It might be interesting to watch this game and then revisit the Arsenal-Barca games soon after. The difference in styles between the two English sides will be stark even though both will be chasing the ball. I am pretty sure United’s performance will highlight some of the systemic issues that have been troubling the Gunners.

All the noise and nuisance created by the Dark Lord after his side were convincingly dispatched by the Catalans will help Fergie and his players. The referee in this game is likely to be extremely lenient and that will allow the English side to thrive. I also expect more focus on Barcelona so their theatrics might be punished even if they’re somewhat justified.

The point made by Wenger – Barcelona look tired – is valid and will have an impact. Don’t be surprised if Ferguson copies Arsene’s tactic of attacking these opponents late in the game. Guardiola’s team might start as favourites but if the game is deadlocked after an hour his side will struggle.

Both teams have relatively poor away records, certainly when compared to their respective home form. If I’m not mistaken, Messi hasn’t scored yet in England (unlucky to have the goal at the Emirates ruled out). Since the game is at Wembley United might have an edge.

For gooners, there are some aspects that we can learn from both teams. Barcelona will show how to play a patient possession game. This includes the art of defensive possession, preventing counter-attacks by unparalleled pressing and positioning, and picking the right moments to penetrate. There are times when Arsenal try too hard against opponents like United. It stretches the Gunners out of shape and opens the game up for the opponents. I’ll be surprised if Barcelona do it even once. The Manchester side will have to produce quality football to get a goal; they won’t get a gift (They might get one from a set-piece).

From a defensive point of view we will be able to see the importance of concentration as the English side chase the ball and close the opponents down. Their positioning, shape, and decision making (when to press and when to back off) will also be worth watching. I believe Arsenal struggle on this front. There are times when the players get their decisions wrong. On other occasions players are not in sync, some press while others back away. United will show what a well-drilled defensive machine they are. Exemplary if you can tolerate it.

Unless there is a freak early goal, this game is not likely to have too much goalmouth action. It will be boring from that point of view. But to those interested in the details it will be a fascinating duel. I’ve already started conditioning my mind in the effort to focus on the game. Hopefully, it will work out by tomorrow afternoon.

Can Clarence Seedorf Be The Key Signing For Arsenal?

May 3, 2011

I don’t normally spend much time talking about transfers so this is somewhat of an unusual post. There have been some thoughts in my mind for a while and they clicked in place when I saw the news that Clarence Seedorf is going to be a free agent in the summer.

In the Arsenalsphere, countless hours and column inches have been devoted to the discussion on leadership, experience, and mentality issues. Most fans, even positive supporters with complete faith in Wenger, seem to agree that the Gunners are missing something in this department.

I don’t share the sweeping criticisms that there is no winning mentality in this squad or that there are no leaders among this relatively young group but I do agree there is scope for improvement on all fronts, viz. leadership, experience of winning big trophies, and strong mentality.

It is a complex issue and I wasn’t able to see how signing one or two players could solve everything. I still don’t see a complete or guaranteed-to-work solution but someone like Seedorf might go a long way in balancing this squad.

Before I expand on this I acknowledge that the Dutchman is past his heyday and will certainly not be seen as a marquee signing. Those who believe quality players can only be signed with big money (there are plenty of such people around and sadly some of them are quite vocal gooners) will undoubtedly vilify the manager for another ‘cheap/free signing’. But if we accept that players must be signed based on the needs of the squad and not of the fans, and that quality is not always proportional to the amount of money paid, then the acquisition of Seedorf could make a lot of sense.

Serious fans of the game know the Dutchman’s resume so I won’t repeat it. I think the biggest gain for Arsenal will be that of a player who knows how to win big trophies on a consistent basis. We must not forget this squad has some extremely talented players and if someone has to come in a leadership role that person would have to have unquestionable credentials. I’m pretty certain every member of the squad including the likes of RvP, Cesc, Nasri, and others will show natural respect towards the ex-Real Madrid midfielder.

The same cannot be said for the overwhelming majority amongst the gazillion names that are bandied about when fans have a discussion on internet forums and blogs.

The second aspect about Seedorf that I like is that not only is he a winner, he is an exceptionally good footballer who will fit into the Arsenal style seamlessly. the Dutchman can also act as a catalyst to accelerate the development of guys like Wilshere and Ramsey. The youngsters are top players right now but imagine a stage where the two of them can just own the midfield against any opposition! It’s a very realistic proposition but will take a great deal of work from the duo and having a mentor who’s been there and done that will do them no harm.

An interesting point that has been mentioned during the past few months is that Arsenal need players with a defensive mindset. It took me a while to completely understand the notion but now I fully agree with it. Seedorf is an attacking midfielder with a highly technical game. But he has played in the Italian league for a long time and we can see his defensive intelligence. Of course, he won’t be a substitute for a new No. 2/defence coach but Arsenal have quite a few players of similar ilk and they can all benefit from his experience. Subtle improvements in positioning, ball retention, composure, controlling the tempo of the game, etc. can make a massive impact on the results and points tally at the end of the season.

Another advantage with Seedorf is that he will understand that he won’t be first choice or a regular starter. Cesc, Song, Wilshere, Ramsey, and Diaby will all need games. In that regard, I’m convinced someone like the four time Champions League winner will be happy to play the kind of role Scholes and Giggs play at United. He can start some games based on the squad’s fitness situation and can also come in towards the end of matches to help the team hold on to leads. For him personally it would be a slightly different challenge but one that he should relish.

This won’t adversely impact the development of the younger players as they can learn from watching him in training and during crunch moments in certain games.

I haven’t followed his career closely but the highly decorated midfielder seems like a true professional with excellent work ethic. His fitness too has been exceptional throughout the course of his career and physically he seems strong enough for the Premier League considering he won’t be playing full games every three days.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that such a move will work out to Arsenal’s advantage to the extent of landing a few trophies in the cabinet. I am not saying he is the only player Arsenal need or that anyone else won’t work. However, considering various factors mentioned above, this would seem like a valuable acquisition with very little risk and a high probability of positive contribution to the squad in more ways than one.

Can Clarence Seedorf be the key signing for Arsenal?

Tiny Totts V Real Mad: Nice Fun And Some Noteworthy Points

April 14, 2011

Before I begin I just want to say a big Thank You to Arseblogger for linking to my last post and a sort of belated welcome to all the new readers who came from Arseblog. Getting a mention on the best and most popular football blog on the planet is for me something akin to what Connor Henderson might have felt while playing with the big guns in the first team. Thanks again.

Coming to the topic of the post, I had fun watching Spuds against Mourinho’s men. To be honest I felt some pity for ‘Arry and his boys because they fought valiantly even though they were clearly way out of their depth. It wasn’t an emotion I ever thought I’d feel for the Tinies but you have give credit where it’s due.

If it hadn’t been for a blatant dive by serial diver Bale in the opening minutes, the ref might have given one or two penalties to the home side. One can argue that it could have changed the game and made it competitive. It would certainly have woken Real up from their slumber and got the visitors out of second gear in which they were cruising. But then one can also say a yellow card to Bale, even before five minutes were up, would have affected the rest of the game.

In the end there was never any doubt about which team was superior and by quite a margin.

From an Arsenal point of view though, after watching this game I was a bit disappointed we didn’t draw Real in the second round. A team that came so close against Barca would have had more than a fighting chance against Madrid, Bayern, or Schalke. Anyway that’s all water under the bridge so I don’t want to dwell on it but I hope Gooners will appreciate the quality of Arsenal’s effort against Barca after seeing the 5-0 hammering received by the Spuds.

There were some observations from the game that I wanted to share.

First was the way Real moved the ball around without any attacking intent. I have talked about the importance of defensive possession in the past and the need for the Gunners to develop that art. We got a fantastic example of the value of that tactic in this game. There are many games where Arsenal can defend just by moving the ball around while forcing the opponents to chase the ball and commit fouls. For instance, the 4-4 draw against Newcastle would have been a very different game if Arsenal had played keep-ball for a while.

Somehow, the Gunners tend to lose patience in possession when there are no attacking opportunities. But when you are up by four goals, or even two goals for that matter, just passing the ball in the middle of the park can be a very good defensive approach, especially for a team that isn’t built to pile numbers at the back and park the bus. Of course, in order for this to succeed each player should know just what they are doing. It cannot be done by one or two players. The priority has to shift to sustaining possession. The off-the-ball movement has to be adapted in order to suit this change in approach. Hopefully, we will see more of this as the team continues to mature.

Second was the one dimensional approach by ‘Arry. All Spuds could do was knock the ball long and wide to their quick wingers. It led to plenty of crosses but not many genuine shots on goal. Again as I’ve discussed before, this kind of play is among the most inefficient ways of attacking. I don’t remember a single decent attack from the Tinies that came down the middle or which put a player through. Width is good as a plan B but if that’s the best you can do then you don’t belong at the highest level.

Another interesting point was that the Madrid full-backs struggled a bit in this game. As I have noted in the Arsenal context, when the full-backs don’t get enough support from the wide attackers and/or midfielders, it is not easy for them to defend against quick and tricky wingers. It just shows how good Clichy and Sagna actually are.

Mourinho had to ensure one of his midfielders joined Ramos and subsequently Arbeloa whenever Bale was running with the ball. Clichy has to do a lot of work on his own when Arshavin and Wilshere don’t provide this support on a consistent basis. Sagna does better because he often has Song on his side. I believe with more experience Wilshere will make our left side much stronger and that will help get the best out of Clichy once again.

I also noticed that Casillas was not too confident against the aerial balls. This is another point that I have covered in the past. Football teams look to have a solid defence when the defenders deal with most of the balls into the box and the Keeper doesn’t have to come out to punch or go chasing deep crosses. In that area Arsenal have made significant improvements this season. Fabianski and Szczesny didn’t have to come out that often and it made them look more than competent. Almunia probably lost his confidence and decision making after last season and the West Brom game this year. He made the mistake of coming out when not needed and that made him look like a clown. If this single issue of the Keeper holding his ground is sorted out, the goalkeepers at Arsenal, especially the Poles, can make a big name for themselves. All of them are certainly much better than a guy like Gomes.

Finally, I wanted to restate my amusement at the way pundits talk about the Tiny Totts. They lost 4-1 to a second string Arsenal side in the Carling Cup, got thumped 4-0 by Fulham in the FA Cup, got knocked out of the Champions League with a humiliating 5-0 score line, and are 9 points behind the Gunners in the league table.

Of course, it is clearly a case of balancing performances against expectations. Nobody expected anything from Spuds in the first place and so whatever little they do is a big achievement. The reverse is true for Arsenal.

However, it is important to note that many doom-mongers and pundits in the media have been constantly predicting that the Tinies will go past the Gunners. It’s been going on for years now as the Totts have spent considerable amounts (~300M in the last 8 years). But most of these are pre-season predictions based on the transfer activity and are forgotten by the time we get to the business end of the season where Arsenal are competing at the top end while Tottenham are busting their guts to finish fourth. I find it incredible that some fans want Arsenal to sacrifice the stability and consistency and go down the path that Spuds have taken.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the joy of this day by going into that tired discussion. Let’s move on and keep the focus on the remaining games. In that context, the Totts are lucky they have a long rest before the North London Derby. Hopefully it won’t matter. More on that when we get closer to the game.

RIP Danny Fiszman

Update: Just wanted to share this excellent article by Walter on Untold in case you haven’t been there yet.

Back From The Wilderness

April 9, 2011

I guess apologies are in order for being MIA for such a long time. Sorry for not posting even an update but I was on a vacation over the last week and ended up without an internet connection for large periods. Things got further complicated as I forgot my phone charger and it left me completely out of touch with the world. Of course, I could have found options if I really wanted to, but this experience of just being close to nature, with people who really matter in my life near me, and without caring about too many events around the world, was actually quite a pleasant one.

Consequently, I missed the game against Blackburn and other Premiership fixtures, the Cricket World Cup final, the mid-week Champions League ties, and a lot more. But to be honest, now that I’ve missed these games, it feels good.

There was just too much noise. Every single event was being twisted into title talk. Over simplification and trivialization of issues was compounding the frustration of certain performances. This break helped me in getting my head clear of all the negativity. For a while it was affecting my mind but now I have rediscovered the, dare I say, mental strength to see through it and ignore the noises, however loud and repetitive they might be. I wholeheartedly recommend a complete break from events, at least football-wise, to all who are tired of the internet pollution.

The usual pre-game thoughts will return tomorrow with the focus on Blackpool. I expect that to be one of the most entertaining games of the season and hopefully most fans will be able to enjoy a football match for what it is, a football match, instead of losing the joy by looking at it as a piece of the mind-boggling silverware jigsaw.

I will also try to cover some of the events of the past week after I catch up with the news. There seems to be a lot going on. Fergie is showing real class with his comments about the Police Superintendent.

There is a wee guy, sitting down there in the Midlands, probably never been recognised in his life, managed to elevate himself to whatever it is in the police force.

Even though I don’t know the whole story, it’s difficult to see any sense behind those words. If the Superintendent is a ‘wee guy’ what do you guess Ferguson thinks of the rest of the police force? The United manager might have a point but I’d expect more composed communication from someone of his stature. Perhaps such an attitude comes from years of having things going your way. After all, if your players can get away with kung-fu kicks on opponents and don’t even get cautioned for running at and shoving a ref, you’d feel a sense of entitlement.

Before ending, I do want to take a moment to send my commiserations to all the Tiny Totts, especially the ones who visit this site regularly. I missed their heroics at the Bernabeu but hopefully we will get a DVD of that soon. Such games put the criticism Arsenal received after the Barcelona tie into stark perspective. For that, heartfelt thanks go to ‘Arry and his boys. I can never understand how Spuds receive so many plaudits while Arsenal get attacked left, right, and centre. But that does help me in ignoring, even laugh at, the analysis and opinions rife with double standards, jealousy, and bigotry.

More in the coming days…

Thoughts And Predictions For The Champions League Draw

March 18, 2011

Before I proceed I want to mention that this article is mostly speculation about the Champions League draw and the teams in it. There won’t be much about Arsenal.

Ok with that out of the way I thought I’ll jot down some thoughts I had about the Champions League quarter-final draw. While the draw is held live and involves some big names associated with the game, I often get the feeling that it is, at least partially, rigged. Do you get the same feeling?

The way some teams keep bumping into each other (Arsenal – Barca, Real – Lyon, etc), the way it throws up some exciting rematches like the repeat of last season’s final in this season’s second round, and the way some of the relatively smaller teams always play each other so that one of them can get through to the latter stages makes me wonder if it’s all a matter of luck.

Of course, one argument is that there are so many permutations that some patterns will always emerge no matter what the outcome. It really could be that simple. On the other hand the reasons behind fixing the draw could be twofold; firstly, it would allow some of the smaller teams a chance to go one step forward and break the hegemony of the big sides while earning some fame and highly useful cash; and secondly, rematches and the likes add more glamour and increase the chatter around the games.

So going by my theory I’d expect two out of Spuds, Schalke, and Shakhtar to meet in the quarter-finals. That way one of the lesser fancied teams is sure to advance to the semi-finals.

Similarly, there is a chance that Real get paired with Inter. This could lead to a great deal of media coverage about Mourinho’s return to the San Siro, how everyone feels about it, and stuff like that. Essentially, it keeps the Champions League in the limelight for a longer period, for free.

Personally speaking, I’d love to see Real meet United. The battle between two highly intelligent managers who both rely heavily on tactics will be fun to watch at a tactical level even if the football isn’t inspiring. It will also put extra pressure on United in their mid-week fixtures. And of course what could be better than having Barcelona meeting them in the semi-final after disposing off the Spuds in the quarters.

Seriously though, Barcelona-Spuds can be an immensely entertaining fixture with a lot of goals, mostly at one end but one or two at the other as well. I’m really hoping for this tie in the draw even if everything else I’m saying falls flat. ‘Arry’s comments, before and after the games, alone will be worth their weight, or should I say font size, in gold.

On the other side Chelsea could then have a rematch with Inter, a tie they lost in the second round last Year. This will nicely set up the small team fixture between Schalke and Shakhtar.

Well those are just some thoughts I had about the draw and a bit of light-hearted speculation. Even without Arsenal I’m going to watch most of these games as these days I’m trying to control the emotions a bit more and focussing on the tactics and other details.

By the way did anyone catch the Europa League games today? Man City really know how to cure a Gooner’s disappointment. I’d say Liverpool too did their bit by huffing and puffing to a goalless home draw with Braga, a team that did well against us in the Champions League. Interestingly, both these ‘giants’ lost to a couple of teams that have dropped down from the CL to the EL. Does that mean neither of them are really ready for the Champions League? And if so, how far behind Arsenal are these teams? I’ll leave you to ponder on that.

Spare A Thought For The Players

March 10, 2011

The game against Barcelona evoked a number of emotions among all Gooners. Most were infuriated by the ref, some were disappointed with the performance, or by the tactics, or for any number of reasons. As always, there were also those who came up with irrelevant and illogical rhetoric based on their personal fancies that had very little to do with what happened on the pitch. Interestingly, most Gooners did acknowledge that Barcelona were the better team and played a superb game despite their shameful theatrics and throat-grabbing antics.

Having taken a day off from all news and blogs I was able to dwell on the game without further external influences. One thought that came to my mind while doing this was – If fans can be so gutted, how would the players feel?

Over the last few years I have seen and read a lot of thoughts over the internet but not many have talked about this issue from the players’ point of view.

We have a group of players fighting hard all through the season in a squad that is struggling with injuries. They deal with a number of physical teams that leave them bruised and battered without any protection from the refs. They also have to live with constant negative press and cheap, lazy opinions from pundits. Recently, they’ve also been playing in front of some fans who haven’t always been vocally supportive. Still they go on fighting. They reach a stage where they’re in the final of a Cup, fighting for the League, and facing a daunting challenge against the best current team in the Champions League.

They lose the final to a mistake by two usually reliable and high-performing players. How much of that was affected by all the negativity around the club? Could that have led to a hint of self-doubt or indecision in these players at a key moment?

Then we have a game like the one against Sunderland. Arsenal dominate the game, create a number of chances, the opposition keeper saves well, finally a blatant penalty is denied, and a perfectly legal goal disallowed. For some fans it’s easy to criticize from the comfort of their chairs or couches. But what would a player, who has been cheated out of two points after all the hard work that has gone in, feel? And this hasn’t happened once but over and over again. Sometimes one can find a way past it as the players did against Everton but on other occasions it doesn’t work.

Even in the Champions League tie, the players were against a better team and a genius like Messi. They had to play a completely unnatural style and the only real way of staying in the tie was to strain every sinew and fight till the end. Suddenly you have opponents grabbing you by the throat while one of your own is down genuinely hurt. The ref watches everything but doesn’t take action.

Obviously, it has an effect on the players’ mindset as we saw from the way RvP pushed Alves. Once again it’s easy to say he shouldn’t do it but this is not a result of one moment. It’s something that’s come from fighting the whole year against the odds. And it only gets worse when the ref sends him off for virtually nothing.

As a player they must be wondering just what it is that they’re supposed to do. How long will this go on?

The clichéd argument is that the players have to get over it and get results despite the injustices, that champions find a way. But as we saw in the last two games that United lost, it’s not easy to win games when key decisions go against you.

I know I’d break down if I had to go and perform against the odds so many times. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always questioned those who challenge the mentality of these players. They have to establish their credentials and show that they actually understand what winning mentality is. I don’t think ordinary guys like me (and you?) ever face the kind of pressure these players are under. How then does one form an opinion on something he/she doesn’t even begin to understand?

There is no law against irrational arguments or ignorant opinions. You can claim that so and so would have done better or that certain players in the past were better. But those who remember the chances missed by Henry in the Final against Barcelona will hardly criticize Bendtner. Those who remember how the earlier Wenger teams fared in Europe, how they lost to the likes of Mallorca, Werder Bremen, etc will not really feel let down by a loss against this Barcelona side under such circumstance. They’ll be proud of the effort.

This season Arsenal have performed above expectations in all competitions so far. No one expected a title challenge in the league. Who predicted Arsenal will reach the Carling Cup final at the start of the season. The team is still in the FA Cup quarter-finals. And the loss against Barcelona certainly wasn’t a shame.

There have been a number of blips, and there are some weaknesses as there are in all teams, but the depth of the squad and the spirit of the players has taken the team forward.

It’s amusing that Fergie recognizes this better than some Gooners.

But Arsene Wenger and his players have rearranged the pecking order to come storming through to lie in second.

When one admits the fact that this ‘rearranging’ has been done under extremely strenuous external circumstances, a great deal of credit has to go to the players and the manager. I don’t like all of them but that doesn’t take anything away from what they’re doing as a group. It’s almost been two days since the game and right now I feel a stronger sense of support for these players than I have ever done.

PS: Does anyone know the reason Nasri has been charged by UEFA? Something he might have said in the tunnel?

Barcelona 3 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 9, 2011

Some top of the mind thoughts after this game are –

It was a heroic effort by the Arsenal players.

The ref completely took the life out of Arsenal in a moment of stupidity.

Barcelona certainly deserved to go through but they would have been seriously tested if the game had been 11v11 till the end. It was amusing to watch Guardiola getting anxious towards the end and waiting for full time.

I’m still tearing my hair out with some of the tactical mistakes, albeit predictable, by Le Boss and his players, the perfect example of which came when, with 90 seconds of stoppage time to go, Wilshere took a free-kick short. I don’t want to blame the youngster who put in a tremendous shift but it does highlight the limitation of Arsenal as a club under Wenger to think about the game in a different way. It was the perfect time to send everyone forward and have Almunia kick one into the mix but they just weren’t prepared for it mentally. I’m not even sure some of them realized what they needed based on the away goals rule.

I don’t want to be too harsh after all the effort that was put in but it was disappointing to see Rosicky on the right and Nasri on the left with Van Persie in the middle.

That meant Arsenal had no pace/threat along the right wing which was one of Barcelona’s weaknesses. It also meant there was a lot more pressure on Nasri as he had to defend against Alves and had to make lung bursting forward runs. Given how close this game was, in terms of qualification and not possession, it leaves me wondering what could have been if Arsene had put Nasri on the right and a more defensive minded player on the left.

While the first half was tight Arsenal didn’t have any, and I mean it literally, attacking opportunities. Apart from the blunder with Rosicky on the right, starting Van Persie added to the woes. That meant Arsenal had no outlet for playing the ball out. The Dutchman wasn’t working the channels and wasn’t able to win much in the air either.

Barcelona created a number of half-chances in the first half but failed to impress creatively despite a lot of possession. Most of their moves were going through Messi but Arsenal were doing a decent job of holding out.

An injury to Szczesny saw Almunia entering the fray early on. It didn’t affect the pattern of play too much.

The game had been a bit edgy with a couple of Arsenal players playing physically in terms of pushing the opponents a bit. Barcelona had Alves who was playacting and tackling rough.

Towards the end of the first half a tough but fair tackle on Wilshere left the youngster in pain. Iniesta probably thought Wilshere was a Barcelona player and was rolling around without any cause so he went to pick him up. This situation led to a coming together of players. I don’t know exactly what went on but we could see Abidal grabbing Van Persie by the throat.

If the ref really wanted to go by the rule book, the defender should have seen Red.

Moments later Van Persie was booked for a shove on Alves as the Brazilian displayed his acting skills once again when he went down clutching his face.

Five minutes were added on for the two injuries and Messi scored in the third of those with a sublime piece of skill to beat Almunia. The chance however, came from an astonishingly careless back-heel by Fabregas who gave the ball away on the edge of the box.

One goal wasn’t going to change much and Arsenal were always in it. Barcelona always give the opponents some chances to score if the other team can get to their penalty box.

Eight minutes into the second half Arsenal got the equalizer after Nasri won a corner with some good work down the left. The Frenchman’s delivery was headed into his own net by Busquets.

It could have been an exciting game after that but for the ref. Van Persie was flagged off-side as the ball was played over to him. The Dutchman controlled the ball and shot on the turn. He was given a second yellow card for playing on after the whistle i.e. time-wasting. Given the number of whistles being blown by the crowd and the fact that the time between the ref’s whistle and the shot was a mere 1 second, it really was a mind-boggling decision.

One could blame Van Persie for the first yellow and for not going down clutching his throat when Abidal grabbed him. Perhaps he will learn from Alves after watching this game again but for now none of it matters.

Arsenal seemed to lose all composure for the next fifteen minutes or so. Barcelona were able to move the ball far too easily and opened the Gunners up time and again. During this period the defence and midfield lost their shape far too often and ended up chasing balls instead of defending spaces.

Almunia kept Arsenal in the game with a number of saves in one-v-one situations proving again that he is among the best in the world at that.

The Spaniard couldn’t keep Xavi’s strike out after it took a deflection. Replays showed that the Keeper had the original shot covered but the deflection and subsequent bounce caught him off guard. The third came from the penalty spot after Koscielny fouled Pedro.

Barcelona created some more chances after that but Almunia was up to the challenge. Arsenal weren’t able to do much with ten men.

Arsene brought Arshavin and Bendtner on for Rosicky and Fabregas but it was too little too late. And with the Gunners not showing any inclination for using their aerial superiority or for making tactical adaptations, the game ended tamely.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the choices of Wenger but that doesn’t reduce the frustration or disappointment. In fact, it only worsens it. Nevertheless, the players deserve a great deal of credit for the effort they put in. In both games Arsenal performed better than they did last season showing clear signs of improvement.

Barcelona will need to do much, much better if they are to get past other tactically more astute sides in this tournament if they want to win it.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Wasn’t really tested during the time he was on the pitch. Got injured saving the only shot that came his way.

Almunia: Made a number of excellent saves. Was beaten by a sublime skill from Messi, a deflection, and a penalty.

Sagna: Struggled under pressure when in possession. Can’t fault him for effort as he maintained the narrow shape and chased as many balls as he could.

Djourou: Made a number of last-gasp tackles. Deserves credit for hard work and concentration.

Koscielny: Similar to Djourou in some ways. Was booked early in the game but did well despite the pressure. His tackle led to the penalty but the team was all over the place at that time.

Clichy: He was the one who played Messi on-side for the first goal but again it’s difficult to blame the defender in such a situation. Did well to deal with Alves and Pedro on most occasions but Barcelona got in behind on the left quite often. Can’t blame Clichy for it as Alves was playing really high up and not having a defensive player there put Clichy under pressure despite the best efforts of Nasri.

It would be easy to blame the back five for conceding three goals and many chances in the second half but I don’t think it’s fair. They won’t face this kind of a pressure again this season so it’s time to move on and focus on the other games.

Diaby: When in possession, wasn’t able to use the ball as well as one might have hoped. His leap did play a part in Busquets scoring an own goal. Did his part in chasing the ball.

Fabregas: Not a good idea to use him in a supposedly advanced role when the team was defending deep and he had no forward looking options. Should have been playing in front of the back four with a couple of players in attacking positions in front of him.

Wilshere: Another heart-warming effort from the youngster. Looked positive when he got the ball.

The midfield put in a solid shift in the first half. They lost their composure after Van Persie was sent off and they didn’t know whether to sit back or to attack. The better option might have been to stay compact at the back and sustain pressure for a while. The lack of an attacking outlet was always going to make life difficult.

Rosicky: Tried hard and was the chief grappler for Arsenal but just wasn’t up to the level of the game.

Van Persie: Needs to control his aggression and channel it in the right manner. Extremely unlucky to be sent off in such a manner.

Nasri: worked tirelessly on the flank but Wenger’s tactics were asking too much off him. Still managed to earn a corner and delivered it in the right area.

Can’t really call these players attackers in such a game. As mentioned earlier, I feel Arsene got key decisions wrong while picking the forward players.

Subs: Arshavin tried but couldn’t do much. Bendtner had one chance but it’s difficult to blame him for missing that as we saw plenty of Barcelona players miss one-v-ones.

While disappointing and undoubtedly frustrating, this game or the result should not be seen negatively. No one gave Arsenal a chance when the draw was made so the players should be credited for the effort put in despite playing an unnatural style against a better team with a real footballing genius in their ranks.