Since I’m new at EPL Talk, I’d like to talk a little bit more (before I discuss Wednesday’s match) about my history as an Arsenal fan. Slowly becoming a soccer fan in college, a 2006 trip to Europe with my girlfriend really cemented my love of the Gunners. Arriving in Paris just days before the Champions League Final, little did I know what would await me. The year before, I had been in Israel during the Liverpool-Milan game. Taking a cursory interest, I sat down with several Israelis who were screaming about how dominant Milan were. As everyone knows, it didn’t end up that way. But it was enough to turn me into a soccer fan for life.
Flash forward a year. After taking the train by the Stade De France the day of the match, and seeing the Arsenal and Barcelona fans peacefully hanging out, I knew that, unlike certain English clubs, this was going to be the club for me. The night was truly magical. Settling down in a Parisian cafe with the match on a HD screen, my girlfriend, for reasons unbeknownst to me, decided she was going to root for Barca. While I did watch a number of Arsenal matches that season, my fandom paled in comparison to how it is now, so I didn’t object.
After 17 minutes, Jens Lehmann was sent off. Sol Campbell scored, and the number of Arsenal fans in the cafe yelped in delight, myself included. Sadly, the night did not end up well for Arsenal. A 2-1 defeat, but it was hard to not be proud of Arsene Wenger’s team. Despite this, it was unmistakable: Barcelona were, even then, the perfect team. They played exciting soccer, and attacked mercilessly. Seeing them in the Champions League Final in 2009, it was again just beautiful to watch. You couldn’t help but root for them. My feelings toward them in both those games were of both awe and jealousy–Why couldn’t Arsenal be that team?
The reality, we can’t be that team. Watching the first half yesterday afternoon on delay, I realized that Arsene Wenger’s boys can’t be Barcelona. Rather, they have to (and are) shaping their own identity. Completely dominated for the first 55 minutes, an Arsenal team based on grit and fitness slowly came alive. The introduction of England International Theo Walcott changed the complexion of the game.
(As an aside, if you think that Fabio Capello wasn’t whetting his chops at the thought of Theo making runs like that in South Africa, you are kidding yourself. The kid can only show up in big games on the biggest stage. World cup qualifiers? Barcelona in the Champions League? He’ll be there. Stoke away in February? Not a chance!)
After that, a team with superior fitness finished it off. While I’m not sure that Puyol deserved a penalty for knocking off Fabregas, the reality is that the referee saw a foul, and at that point you have to send him off. Fabregas showed the reason why he should be footballer of the year, by knocking in a penalty with a broken leg! At this point, Wenger should have pulled him off–who knows what kind of damage that Fabregas could have done to himself in the remaining ten minutes.
Meanwhile, even despite the comeback, the old nemesis of Barcelona still struck awe and fear into the eyes of Gooners all over the world. Even despite the draw, it still seems likely that Barca will send Arsenal out of the champions league for the third time in the last 11 years. While the domestic rivals Chelsea and Man U continue to demolish the Gunners head-to-head, it is this talented, free-flowing, and altogether better group from Barcelona that makes Arsenal fans feel inadequate.
—-Notes on the Game:
1. Arshavin: The reality is, at this point, Arshavin is simply not good enough to make the starting XI of a club such as Arsenal. His runs and passes are incredibly wasteful, and he simply does not track back on defense. He should be used only as a super-sub, and nothing more. Eboue and Rosicky provide more right now than Arshavin does. Yes, his 4 goal performance at Liverpool was incredible. But better teams (Chelsea, Man U, Barcelona) will destroy you down the wing when a player doesn’t track back, as Arshavin is prone to do.
2. Nasri: While Arsenal fans sweat having to go to the Camp Nou without Cesc Fabregas, the young Frenchman, in my opinion, is having the best season of his life. He has been excellent, and a midfield of Diaby-Denilson-Nasri with Song in the back scares me much less than you would think. The loss of Fabregas will not be the reason why Arsenal loses in the 2nd leg.
3. Messi: For all his talk as the best player in the world, Messi seemed extremely absent from this game. Hopefully he doesn’t decide to “wake up” before the 2nd leg.
4. TV: As all of you know, Fox Sports Net is going to be broadcasting the second leg into most US homes with cable. Frankly, this should be the game that you DVR for your non-soccer-loving friends and family, and tell them THIS is the reason why you’re a fan. If the first leg was any guide, the second leg should be a barn-burner.
Jordan Acker is a law student and Arsenal supporter from Detroit, currently exiled in Washington, DC. Follow him on twitter: @JAcker2L