There’s a magic about soccer that sometimes feels like hypnotism. Whenever a goal is scored, it’s almost as if everything that happened before it is erased from the person’s mind.
On Wednesday night, never mind the fact that Arsenal was outplayed for 75 minutes in their Champions League match against Barcelona. Instead focus on the last 15 minutes where the Gunners pulled a goal back from the inspirational Theo Walcott and tied the game with a penalty scored by Cesc Fabregas.
For the last quarter of this match, Arsenal deserved everything they got. After Walcott’s goal, the Gunners played with a self-belief and finally a physicality that was severely lacking earlier in the match. Barcelona, for the first time in the game, was on the back foot and tried to defend Arsenal’s wave after wave of attacks.
The turning point was a massive piece of good fortune for Arsenal when the Swiss referee erroneously pointed to the spot when Fabregas fell to the ground after getting tangled up with Puyol. It should never have been a penalty, but Arsenal accepted the opportunity and Fabregas made it 2-2. In doing so, Fabregas injured his leg and looks likely to miss the rest of the season. Heroically or stupidly, depending on which way you look at it, Fabregas played the rest of the game, limping around the field knowing that all three substitutes had been used and realizing that this was his last chance to play against Barcelona since the yellow card he picked up earlier in the game suspended him from the return leg next week.
Focusing on the first 75 minutes of the match, this was a game of miracles. It was a miracle that Arsenal went into half-time at nil-nil such was the way that Barcelona completely outplayed Arsenal for the first 45 minutes of the game. It was a miracle that Barcelona didn’t score a dozen goals. It was a miracle that Arsenal came away from this game with a draw. It was a miracle that Arsenal is still within a fighting chance of knocking Barcelona out of the tournament next week.
I’ve watched over a thousand soccer games in my lifetime, but I have never seen such as one-sided first half away performance as I did Wednesday night at the Emirates Stadium. Here are my notes from the earlier parts of the game:
- 6th min.: Arsenal looks like they have no chance in this match. Barcelona could have been 3-0 up by now with chances by Ibrahimovic, Messi and Busquets,
- 9th min.: Why is no one marking Dani Alves? The Brazilian keeps on running down his right wing with little pressure or opposition against him.
- 10th min.: This match resembles a practice session for Barcelona. They’re playing keep-away and Arsenal just can’t get the ball,
- 14th min.: It could easily be 5-0 or 6-0 to Barcelona if their accuracy was better,
- 16th min.: Barcelona has already had 9 shots on goal. Bayern Munich managed 13 shots in the entire 90 minutes against Manchester United,
- 17th min.: Arsenal is playing like Blackburn Rovers now. They finally managed to get possession and Almunia decides to kick it long down the field only for the ball to be won by Barcelona, and the Spanish giants regain possession.
- And so on.
Judging by how poor Arsenal was in the first quarter of the match, it’s a miracle that they even came close to winning it at the death.
How a team can have so many gifted players but then play with such a lack of a game plan as well as keep on making amateurish mistakes is beyond me. At set pieces, the marking by Arsenal was juvenile. Busquets was continually wide open around the edge of the penalty area and almost scored a couple of times. The marking by Arsenal from the corner kicks was equally poor. The passing by Arsenal was awful. By the 20th minute in the game, the only glimmer of hope was the quality performance that Almunia was putting in for Arsenal after making several spectacular saves. Everyone else on the Arsenal team was horrendous in the first quarter, which was definitely the worst I’ve seen Arsenal play in years.
To be fair, Barcelona was brilliant in the first 75 minutes of the game. Whenever Arsenal got the ball, they instantly pressured the Gunners and made them make mistakes by closing them down tightly and offering them few opportunities to pass to open players. Barcelona also was masterful in possession as they sprayed the ball around the pitch and worked incredibly hard by always moving into open positions and sprinting forward when needed.
Barcelona, especially Ibrahimovic, will be kicking themselves for missing so many great chances to score in this game. But when Barcelona did finally score in the game, it was while the Gunners were asleep from the second half kick-off. Barcelona had far too much time on the ball and one of their midfielders was able to put the perfect pass through to Ibrahimovic who was wide open to lob the ball over Almunia and into the back of the net. Barcelona’s second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first one as Ibrahimovic found himself in the same exact position and this time rocketed the ball into the back of the net past Almunia’s left side.
At two-nil down, Arsenal looked spent. But it was the admission of Theo Walcott which instantly sparked Arsenal to life. Just minutes after coming on, Walcott received a beautiful pass from Nicklas Bendtner. With one touch, Walcott controlled the ball. And with his second touch he kicked the ball underneath Victor Valdes to give the Gunners some hope.
While the opening half of this match resembled a free-for-all shooting gallery by Barcelona, it made me wonder what a master tactician manager such as Jose Mourinho would have done differently in this game. Sure, it wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting of a match with Jose in charge. This was, by far, one of the most exciting matches of the year. But the way that Arsenal played with what seemed like no game plan other than to play their normal game was extremely risky because Arsenal could have been obliterated by half-time. Instead the Gunners rode lady luck and held on. And after the inclusion of Walcott, they were able to play with a desire that few clubs can capture. But still, I often feel when watching Arsenal that they play like the unfinished article. That what they’re missing is not the skill or swagger, but it’s the game plan and tactics that managers such as Mourinho and Benitez (except for this season) have mastered in Europe.
While few people will probably remember Arsenal’s performance in this game, they will remember the scoreline and they will remember what a wonderful match it was to watch. It was full of drama, full of wonderful skill and a shining example of how good this sport can be when it’s played by some of the best athletes in the world. I’m looking forward to seeing the return leg next week, but can hope that even if it’s only half as good as Wednesday’s match, it will be fine indeed.
- Audio difficulties plagued the first 15 minutes of the game on Fox Soccer Channel so we were unable to hear commentators Rob Hawthorne and David Platt for several minutes. To our rescue came Matt Lorenzo, Warren Barton and Bobby McMahon. But the decision to have all three give their analysis while the game was unfolding was a poor decision. We don’t want to hear deep analysis as the action is happening on the pitch. We want someone to commentate what we’re seeing, add a bit of analysis now and again, but focus on the game, not on what happened earlier. When audio difficulties have happened in the past, Fox’s Nick Webster would often step in to commentate the game until the audio feed could be fixed. Webster is no Martin Tyler, but I far prefer hearing Webster commentating a game than Lorenzo, Barton and McMahon giving analysis. Don’t get me wrong, their analysis is great. But it needs to be given before and after a game, and at half time.
- Just as the 2-2 scoreline in the Arsenal against Barcelona match masked how poor Arsenal was in the first half, the same can be said of Manchester City’s 3-0 win against Wigan this past Monday. It was a game where Wigan worked incredibly hard, especially in the first half, and fought for every ball. After Caldwell was unfairly sent off for Wigan, the game turned in Manchester City’s favor and Carlos Tevez turned on his magic to score three lovely goals. But just as the scoreline indicates three points for Manchester City, most people will forget how hard Wigan played. Goals tend to do that. They erase everything that happened previously.