What a night! WHAT A NIGHT! You know it’s been special when nobody leaves before the end and the final whistle is greeted by a loud noise of relief and ecstasy. The buzz carried on for half an hour as my friends and I watched the goals again on the jumbotrons before slowly and reluctantly leaving the stadium after the last player (a shirtless eboue) had made his way to the jubilant home dressing room. Outside the Arsenal fans were singing and chanting their way from the stadium to the tube station as if we’d actually won the Champions League, putting to one side the nagging reality that we have still to go to the Nou Camp and savouring the moment we beat the best team in the world.
And why not? Have Chelsea beaten them? Or Man Utd? As for the Spurs fans giving it large because they beat an ageing and clueless Milan 24 hours earlier, all I can say is this – I’ll see your Milan and raise you a Barcelona. You’d better fold now cos you ain’t topping that! If we do go out (and I’d rate our chances of progression at about 35% by the way, but more of that later) I hope Spurs progress and draw Barca – they certainly won’t win a leg and will probably get hammered 12-1 on aggregate.
The excitement of Arshavin’s goal is one of the best feelings I can remember at an Arsenal game. Thomas in ’89 will never be topped, but this was right up there with Linighan in the Cup final of ’93, Parlour against Valencia at Highbury for 2-1 just seconds after Henry had equalised, and Henry’s late headed winner against Man Utd at the Emirates in 2007. Plus Walcott’s strike against Chelsea in December for 3-0 was pretty special too.
However, it must be said that apart from the opening five minutes when Walcott and Fabregas combined to give van Persie a great sight of goal, we were outclassed for an hour by the best side I have ever seen. Barca were even better than last year, Villa being a much better player than Ibrahimovic, and their amazing work ethic gave us no time on the ball. What impressed me was that they literally sprinted to close down our men and win it back. They didn’t just jockey like we did, they sprinted as if their lives depended on it, two or three men at a time. My friend wondered how they could do that for 90 minutes and I said they keep the ball so well and so long once they have it, they don’t have to try and win possession back too often. Bendtner reckons it did get to them though and he noticed them tiring towards the end.
The game changed with the subs for me. Wenger was positive bringing on Arshavin for Song, although he later admitted that was partly due to Song being on a yellow card. I don’t think the normally solid Cameroonian was on his game after that early yellow and he nearly gave away a penalty with a ridiculous slide on Messi from about 10 yards away. Guardiola took off Villa for defensive midfielder Keita which handed us the initiative. If I remember rightly he did a similar thing last season as Barca sat back for the last 20 minutes and invited the pressure that brought us those two late goals.
We still had to take advantage of this though, which we did magnificently. I couldn’t believe it when van Persie was shaping to shoot from the byline but thank goodness Valdes is a mediocre keeper (how brilliant was Szczesny by the way, what a great keeper he’ll become). As for our second I only really appreciated how good the move was when I saw it later on TV.
Started by Koscielny’s excellent, cool defending on a night he had his best game for us so far, Bendtner and Man of the Match Wilshere both showed great composure under immense pressure from aforementioned pressing to get the ball to Cesc. From there Nasri had found space behind Maxwell who’d pushed on as Barca’s full backs do for most attacks. I thought the chance had gone when he checked in the area and I wished Theo was still on as he’d have been fast enough to go straight for goal, but he picked out Arshavin superbly and what a finish from the cool little Russian, who’s getting his form back and could be a huge player for us in the next 12 weeks. He guided it expertly across Valdes when mere mortals would’ve lashed it into the stands.
2-1 gives us a chance in the return leg but Barca dominated most of this match and will do the same in Spain. Will Messi be so wasteful in front of goal again? Unlikely. Will Szczesny make another couple of one on one stops? He’ll probably need to make even more if we’re to go through. I feel conceding two or three is inevitable over there, but I’m buoyed by the number of chances we made last night, far more than last season. So if we can threaten on the counter and replicate Arshavin’s goal we might do it, especially if we score first, but I’m not betting on it.
Instead I’ll cheer the lads on till I’m hoarse and enjoy tonight – the night Wenger’s kids maybe not came of age, but at least hit puberty. The best is still to come if he can keep this group together.
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