Barcelona 3 – 1 Arsenal | Outplayed but not disgraced

The goal attempts stat is quite damning – Barcelona 19, Arsenal 0. And yet we might have actually won! For a team which had no shots at goal all evening, it’s quite amazing that we got a goal and had a gilt-edged chance to win the tie in the 89th minute when Bendtner miscontrolled as he beared down on Valdes. The great Dane demonstrated once more that he isn’t quite top class and probably never will be as he spurned the chance to steal what would have been a remarkable victory with a shockingly bad first touch.

That was the one time in the game that we applied any pressure to Barcelona when they had possession. Wilshere and Arshavin closed down the left back at the same time and with real purpose, the tiny Russian prodding the ball loose and allowing Wilshere to break free and slide the ball to Bendtner.

Why didn’t we do that before? Why didn’t we harry and hassle them with any sense of urgency or aggression?

We stood off them for most of the game – as we did at the Emirates in the first leg – and allowed them to play their pretty football. There was no conviction to our pressing. It was more of a jockeying game than a pressing game as we tried to keep them at arms length and as a result Barcelona enjoyed 69% possession. When we had the ball though, they sprinted in packs to close us down and get it back – again, just as in the first leg. So much so that we seemed scared to play our usual passing game as they were in our faces so quickly. I feel sorry for our kit man, because I think he’ll find lots of smelly brown stains on our shorts when he comes to do the washing.

Fabregas and Messi challenge for the ball

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So bad were we at keeping the ball that our passing success rate was just 59%. Has it ever been lower? For a side which bases its gameplan on superior passing and ball retention, this rendered us helpless. As Guardiola said after the match, we didn’t make three passes in a row. And if you can’t pass it, you can’t build attacks, hence our embarrassing shots at goal statistic.

Much was made of Barca’s first choice centre backs Puyol and Pique being unavailable. Well, they could’ve played Pinky and Perky at the back and it wouldn’t have made much difference. In fact, Pinky probably wouldn’t have scored the embarrassing own goal that Busquets nodded in to give us a way back into the match. But just as we had a glimmer of hope, van Persie was sent off for time wasting in one of the most ridiculous pieces of officiating you will ever see. The ref had to be absolutely certain van Persie had heard the whistle in order to send him off. How could he possibly have been? In a stadium of 95,000 people, can the ref know for sure van Persie heard it? Of course not. It was incredibly harsh and I doubt Villa or Messi would’ve received the same punishment had they been the offenders. Wenger said afterwards that if it had stayed 11 versus 11 we’d have won as the game had swung in our favour. He might be right, but the fact remains that even when we had 11 men we still didn’t muster one goal attempt.

Our defence therefore had to play well and losing Szczesny so early was a huge blow. I feared the worst when Almunia came on, but he had a good game and this is encouraging as it looks like Szczesny’s season may be over. Let’s hope the Spanish waiter takes confidence from his performance.

The only other Arsenal player to emerge from the game with any credit was Wilshere. What a great attitude this guy has. He wanted to win so badly, you could see it the way he closed down and launched into tackles. Contrast that with the lackadaisical effort of Diaby alongside him. We badly missed Song and need him and Walcott back soon.

I blogged yesterday that a heroic defeat with no injuries might be the best result for us and I stand by that. Our defeat was far from heroic, but it was far from disgraceful either. Let’s not forget we beat them in the first leg and were a poor Bendtner touch away from going through tonight. We’ve lost Szczesny which is a blow and Fabregas had to be taken off, so the clean bill of health didn’t happen. But if we can regroup, pat ourselves on the back for running Barca so close and channel the frustration of van Persie’s sending off into our pursuit of the domestic trophies, I’m confident we’ll have some silverware in the cabinet come May.

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