The match was billed as the biggest Champions League tie of the round, but for us Gunners, it was the biggest match ever, at the Emirates. The only question was whether it would live to expectations. It surely did!
Our line-up for the game was pretty much the strongest possible, with the absence of Van Persie taken into account. The major fitness doubt was Cesc, who was a doubt until the pre-match warm-up! He made it, and surprisingly enough, so did Gallas! All our worries last week as to whether Sol would be fit to play were unnecessary it seems, on reflection.
So we lined-up this way:
Sagna – Gallas – Vermaelen – Clichy
Song – Diaby
Nasri – Cesc – Arshavin
I’m not sure what I expected from the first 15 minutes, but what we saw was in effect, Barcelona v Almunia! We barely had a touch of the ball and we ought to have been dead and buried, if not for Almunia and some profligate finishing. Does this sound really familiar? Well, it’s exactly what we do to other teams, sometimes- create bucket-loads of chances, only to be thwarted by their goallie or our own poor finishing.
Barca’s first chance came less than 2 minutes into the tie. From a corner routine on the right, the ball was fed to Busquets on the edge of the box, but his low shot was saved by Almunia. Messi then had a chance after 5 minutes, but Almunia made the save. Shortly after, Ibrahimovic had the chance to score seconds later just in front of goal, but he skied it! He was offside anyways, although I’m not sure the referee gave it.
We were living dangerously, as Barca weren’t letting us have the ball (not that they’re meant to ‘let us have the ball’, but you know what I mean!). Ibrahimovic later broke free on the right, but his shot was into the side-netting. Ibrahimovic really ought to have scored yet again, but Almunia saved! And in the space of another few secinds, he saved with his arm from Xavi’s shot, the rebound falling to a Barca player, who’s shot was headed off the line by Song.
Watching the match again now minus the tension, the Barca pressure doesn’t look as relentless, but it definitely felt as if we were being battered every second, last night. Having said that however, the stats show that they had had 9 shots on goal with 5 on target, after only 15 minutes. Hoe many had we had then? None! Wow!
I was thinking to myself at the time, that we just had to weather the early storm and not concede, as there’s no way Barca could keep that intensity up for ther whole 90. They’re a brilliant team, but we’ve got some quality too and it would be inevitable that we’d get a chance sooner or later. We just had to take it whenever it came!
We did have a half-chance with 20 minutes on the clock, after Arshavin’s ball into the box from the right caused a bit of panic in the Barca defence, but we couldn’t capitalise and Barca cleared. Arshavin then tried to retrieve the ball by tackling Busquets, but the tackle was slightly late and he picked up a yellow for his troubles, and it seems that’s where he picked up his own injury!
Nasri then tried a fabulous shot from the left, on the edge of the box, but it went just past the post! Much better from us. It was our first real chance- 22 minutes on the clock! Arshavin couldn’t continue and had to be subbed off, Eboue replacing replacing him. The first 15 minutes was total domination by Barca, but we were able to contain them a bit better after that. It was key not to concede in that period and thanks to Almunia, we didn’t. Compared to the first 15 minutes, they only had 3 shots in the second 15, with only one on target. But we only had the one shot by Nasri, meaning they were doing an even better job at containing us.
The last 15 minutes of the first half were quite even, Bendtner managing to hit the post, but apparently he was offside. Still though, glad we were at least keeping Barca on their toes. Song did get a yellow, and it seems Gallas wasn’t fully fit, as he had a recurrence of his calf injury. He looked really really gutted, and for a minute, I was worried he was going to repeat his Birmingham melt-down, but he held it in! He got subbed for Denilson, meaning Song had to drop into defence. Cesc then got what looked like a harsh yellow, meaning he’s suspended from the second leg. He too looked very gutted! Understandable, though.
So that was the story of the first half. Barca really ought to have been ahead, but credit to us for hanging in there. Very impressive. Annoying though, that we’d used up two of our subs due to injuries and lost key players in Arshavin and Gallas.
Having said that though, all our hard work was undone after less than 20 seconds into the second-half! Despite how well Barca played in the first half, I wasn’t expecting them to score so soon! A long ball from behind found Ibrahimovic on the right and with Almunia choosing to come out towards him, Ibrahimovic had the easy task of lofting the ball over him and into the net. Bad mistake by Almunia, but Song and Vermaelen also at fault, as they lost track of Ibrahimovic. I think it was poor communication, as it didn’t seem Song knew he was meant to be picking up Ibrahimovic.
Anyways we were one-nil down, Barca with the crucial away goal. The early goal rattled us, as we were giving the ball away loads. But we regrouped though, and had the chance to level things, after Clichy’s cross from the left found Bendtner, but his header was straight at the Barca ‘keeper, who made the save. The next few minutes were Not a lot more was happening after that, until Xavi set up Ibrahimovic for his second goal, from pretty much the same position as the first one. Indecision at the back meant we lost Ibrahimovic who was picked out beautifully by Xavi. Almunia stayed on his line this time, rightly so, but a lovely finish into the roof of the net meant he had no chance of saving it.
Barca ought to have been out of sight in the first few minutes of the game, but it looked as if they were, at this point. 2-0 up away from home with 30 or so minutes to go and it looked as if the tie was over. The tears were ready yo start falling at the point, in all honesty!
Arsene decided to bring Theo on for Sagna- our last substitution- and it paid off, big time! His first contribution was a surging run down the right, Barca lucky to get away with just a goal-kick. But his second contribution was a goal, less than 5 minutes after coming on! It was a trade-mark Theo goal really, the assist coming from Bendtner, after he had been found by Cesc.
So all of a sudden it was game on, and we had all the momentum. Barca looked as if they had taken their foot off the gas, but it also looked as if we’d found something- pace, probably! They couldn’t handle Theo. Pique managed to get himself booked for a foul on Cesc, meaning he’s going to miss the second leg. Barca were still dangerous on the counter, Ibrahimovic once breaking free on the left, but Almunia was there to make the save. He ws subbed shortly after for the man we all wanted to see back at the Emirates, finally- Thierry Henry! He got a great reception from the fans- don’t think he deserved any less! He didn’t have much of an impact on the game though, just as well!
10 minutes to go though, and we were desperate to find the equaliser. We kept pressing and in all honesty, we looked more likely to score. Barca were less effective without Ibrahimovic, and given our goal-scoring record in the last 15 minutes, the goal just had to come! The how though, was crucial. Puyol was adjudged to have fouled Cesc in the box and the referee decided to give a penalty and also send Puyol off! Captain Fantastic took the penalty and scored! He hit the ball with so much force, that he managed to pick up a knock in the process! Or at least, that’s how he seemed to have been injured! Barca were down to 10 men, but we were effectively down to 10 as well, as Cesc was struggling terribly.
We were unable to take advantage of it and score a third, which frankly would have felt like day-light robbery, not that we’d have cared, though! So it ended 2-2. Not sure anyone would have predicted that 20 minutes into the game. We showed great character to come back from 2 nil down and we’ve got a chance at the Nou Camp. A slight chance, but still a chance.
Cesc will be missing, Gallas too and most likely Arshavin, but you never know! Barca will also be missing their first choice central defenders through suspension, so they’ve got problems of their own. As long as we don’t lose or draw 1-1, we could be through to the semis! I do think the return leg will be quite open and I’ll take a 3-3 draw as we’ll be through! I guess we’ll see, but it looks like it will be an epic!
The possession stats are a bit worrying- 38%-62% in Barca’s, but the one I think is more telling is that despite them having 14 shots on target & us having only 2, the game finished 2-2. It’s all about taking your chances. It was the kind of match where there’s so much to talk about, but I think I’ve said too much already!
As usual, I’ll end with Arsene’s thoughts:
“I must first say that we played against a great team who was dominant in the early part of the game. That’s where we were lucky because they had early chances. We gave them too much room to play. But I must say I give a lot of credit to my players because we kept in the tie at 2-0 against a team like Barcelona. If you have no mental strength you can go down to 5-0 but we came back to 2-2. The only regret I have tonight is the way we gave the two goals away. We were lucky to be 0-0 at half time but I am convinced that had we not given those two cheap goals away we would have won the game.”
When asked about how it feels to be outplayed:
“It is not easy, believe me, but you respect it more than when you are kicked. I respect what Barcelona did tonight and you have to say they are a great side. They won the European Cup, the [Spanish] championship, the [Spanish] Cup, and you can see why. I still believe that a part of their superiority was down to their inhibition at the start of the game. We gave them too much room in the first part of the game.”
Why he thinks we’ll qualify:
“Because we have to study well how we be dominant and win the ball back. I believe that when we win the ball back we always looked dangerous against them. Especially using some weaknesses that we have exploited quite well tonight. We have to go for that.”
Glad the boss shares my optimism, but that game’s not until Tuesday. We’ve got a massive game in the League against Wolves, coming up on Saturday so we have to switch our attention to it. 3 points there, alongside a draw between Man United and Chelsea, and we’ll be looking very good for the League title!