Champions League matches often create fascinating moments in games, especially in the second leg when two teams are going down to the wire to determine who will be victors. In Tuesday night’s match between Barcelona and Arsenal, with Barcelona in the ascendency with a 3-1 lead late in the game, it looked more likely that the scoreline would become 4-1 or 5-1 such was the way Barcelona were creating chances. Luckily for Arsenal, the score was kept respectable thanks to the multitude of saves by Manuel Almunia and some wastefulness by Barcelona as they took one touch too many in front of goal.
But then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Arsenal made a rare counter-attacking run forward down the right wing with Jack Wilshere, who delivered a beautiful cross into the path of Nicklas Bendtner. Despite how Barcelona mastered this game, all of the possession they had, the goals they scored and the chances they created, Bendtner had the chance to score for the Gunners and steal victory on the away goals rule. Of course, as we know, his first touch was awful and Barcelona fans breathed a huge sigh of relief as Victor Valdes (who didn’t have much to do all night) collected the ball and returned Barcelona to safety.
In some ways, it doesn’t seem fair that Arsenal could have stolen victory away from Barcelona on aggregate. Barcelona dominated the second leg, scored three goals, scored one away one but would have lost in the second leg because of an away goal and a late goal by Bendtner. But such are the rules of Champions League football, which makes it even more exciting and bizarre at the same time.
On the flip side, it wasn’t fair at all what Swiss referee Massimo Busacca did in the first half when he didn’t award Barcelona’s Eric Abidal a yellow card for putting his hand around Robin van Persie’s neck. I’m assuming that the referee and assistant referees didn’t see the incident. Incensed by the situation, Van Persie was then punished less than a minute later for an incident with Dani Alves. In the second half, Busacca showed his inconsistency and incompetence by deciding to award Van Persie a second yellow because he played on after the referee had blown his whistle for an offside decision.
Poor decisions aside, Barcelona deserved to go through to the next round given their performances over the two legs. Arsenal, who will feel cheated by referee Busacca, were simply not good enough in the second leg and were fortunate to lose by the scoreline that they did.
When I was watching the game last night, I was impressed by Arsenal’s bravery at times by the likes of Almunia, Jack Wilshere and Johan Djourou, who made several key tackles and blocks. But overall, while I was watching the game, the impression I got was that Arsenal did not create a display worthy of a possible Premier League title holder. The gulf in class exhibited by both sides Tuesday night was massive. Yes, Arsenal had Fabregas who was not 100% fit and were without Walcott and Song, but even without those two players and with a half-fit Fabregas, Arsenal played like they were in a different class. They too often panicked under pressure and booted the ball away instead of trying to keep possession. They made too many mistakes in the back and poured more pressure on themselves than they had to.
Even despite that, Arsenal came within a whisker of upsetting Barcelona and qualifying for the round of 8. But overall, even with a valiant effort at times in front of a packed Camp Nou, Arsenal were simply not good enough. And most importantly for me, didn’t look like a side who could or would go on to win the Premier League. I hope they prove me wrong, but Tuesday night may have been their swan song of the 2010-2011 season.