I thought I’d feel a bit better in the morning, but waking up and all you can hear on the radio for a good hour is ‘Messi, Messi, Messi!’. Not really what you want to hear after he’s single-handedly killed your Champions League dream. But in truth, what can you say? It WAS the Messi show.
With so many injuries to key players, our line-up wasn’t anywhere near our strongest. The good news at the time, was Theo starting and the bad news? Well, Silvestre starting instead of Sol, as Sol wasn’t fit enough. We only had half a chance of beating Barca (or at least drawing 3-3), but the prospect of Silvestre v Messi reduced those chances considerably. Not because Silvestre is the worst defender ever, but because not even the best CB in the world can stop Messi, and having your last choice CB facing him, well, things just got ever so harder!
The starting XI:
Sagna – Silvestre – Vermaelen – Clichy
Denilson – Diaby
Walcott – Nasri – Rosicky
It’s hard looking at that team and not thinking of the missing players. Apart from in goal, we were missing practically the spine of the team- missing a key central defender (Gallas), defensive midfielder (Song), attacking midfielder (Cesc) and striker (RvP). And not to mention our own unknown quantity, Arshavin. People go on about squad depth, but this team would beat most teams in the world, but coming against the best team with the best player, no matter how good your second XI team is, you’d stand a much better chance of beating them with your full squad, especially in their own back-yard.
I didn’t think we’d beat Barca, but I thought it might be a mental game which would end up finishing 3-3! And we started well, too. Barca may have had their fair share of possession, but we restricted them in relation to chances created, at least compared to the first leg. We were getting the tackles in, even though we weren’t creating much.
And the best thing happened- we scored with practically our first attack! From a counter-attack Diaby won the ball on the halfway line- even though it looked as if he’d fouled his man, he hadn’t- fed the ball to Theo on the right who was very much onside and with Bendtner keeping pace with him, he tried to find him. The ball was slightly behind him and his initial shot was saved by Valdes, but Bendtner reacted quickly and stuck the ball into the net! We were ahead! I can’t believe how completely mental I went but I bet I wasn’t the only one!
The game was on. That feeling was surreal, shame it didn’t last long enough, though. We had the chance to maybe make it 2 nil, but Diaby, instead of picking out Theo in an excellent position, went for the wrong option and the chance was lost. And 3 minutes later, Messi equalised. Note how I didn’t say Barca had equalised, as it was all Messi, really. He played a lovely and fortuitous one-two with Silvestre on the edge of the box and hit a fierce shot into the roof of the net. Very similar to his goal against Stuttgart in the last round. Unstoppable, really. Maybe Silvestre could have done better, but credit to Messi, though. It was a cracker. Only 20 minutes on the clock.
15 minutes later, they were 2-1 up. Messi again. He found Abidal who was in behind our defenders. His cut-back wasn’t the best but the ball was passed back to Messi who simply hit the ball over Almunia into the back of the net. We still only needed one goal to level things up, but in no time, Messi had had his hat-trick, and another great finish. Vermaelen went for a header, missed it and Messi was in, one on one against Almunia. All he did was chip it over Almunia. Impudently, one would say! A 21-minute hat-trick! He could have made it four minutes later, but his touch was a bit heavy, and Silvestre was back to clear the danger.
Half-time, 3-1 down.
Considering we were 2-0 down in the first leg and came back, I was still hopeful. And we were still on for my 3-3 prediction! But in reality, though, it didn’t look like it was going to happen. Maybe at 2-1 we had a chance, but that 3rd goal had done the damage. The half-time stats didn’t make particularly good reading. We might have completed 61% of our passes, but compare that to Barca’s 85%. They completed 288 passes, how many did we complete? 82. Wow. Possession was 69%- 31%, obviously in favour of Barca. Not only did they have more of the ball, but they were able to use to ball better than us, because of the amount of pressure they put on us when we had it.
The second half in all honesty, simply meandered on. Not that many chances were created. We kept trying to get into the game, but nothing was working well. We were on the back-foot most times and Barca were carving us open whenever they wanted. But at least their final ball was slightly lacking. We had a few chances too, but our final ball was lacking too! Barca didn’t need to press much because as it stood, they were going through, and they were doing enough to stifle us. A number of our players did well, in the circumstances. Clichy played exceptionally well, and did Bendtner quite well. There wasn’t that much on offer for us, but the players tried their hardest to get into it, but Barca were better than us in pretty much every department. Any time we were in decent positions, they were on to us in a flash.
Arsene later took off Silvestre for Eboue, Sagna moving to CB. It was an attacking move, but the damage had already been done in the first half.We had a great chance through Rosicky. He had time and space but took it first time and it went high and wide. Good chance, that. Pedro had a great chance too, from a quickly taken free-kick, but his lob went wide of the far post.
I still thought we could nick a goal in the last 15 minutes as usual, and we even hit the post through Bendtner after a fabulous Sagna cross, but he was offside. Another change, Eduardo for Rosicky, but it didn’t change much, really. We kind of had the better of the last 15 minutes, but when we were looking our most dangerous, Messi felt he’d seen enough and shut us down with his 4th goal on the night. 4 goals?! Unbelievable. I guess we kind of felt how Liverpool did when Arshavin did the same to them, but at least they’d scored more than one! Back to Messi. He could have had his 4th after 82 minutes as he danced his way into the box, but Vermaelen’s last-ditch defending was excellent. He did it for real after 87 minutes. He tricked his way into the box and his first shot was saved by Almunia, but his was on to the rebound in a flash and slipped the ball through Almunia’s legs. If there were any fans like me who still harboured any hopes of an Arsenal come-back, they were truly extinguished there and then. You can only watch and admire, really. The game was over. It was at half-time, in all honesty.
The defeat was a bit hard to take, not because we didn’t do our best- we did, or at least we tried to- but because you always strive to be the best, and to realise you’re quite clearly second-best doesn’t sit easy. We were missing an unbelievable number of key players, but I can’t help thinking that even if they were available and we’d scored more goals or had been more evenly matched with Barca, Messi simply would have turned it up a notch and outdone us. Maybe we weren’t really outdone by a better team, per se, but we were outdone by a football genius.
We lost Gallas and Song, they lost Puyol and Pique. We lost Robin, Cesc and Arshavin, they lost Ibrahimovic. Why couldn’t the football-gods have been kinder? You know, in exchange for all our injured players,we only wanted Messi out and it’d have been even-stevens. But yeah, we did our best with what we had, but it wasn’t enough. No shame losing to them, but it was still a gutting experience. Less so if it was against United or Chelsea, but losing never is easy to take, even if you lost to the better team. We couldn’t get Theo into the game enough, meaning our main threat was nullified.
We were gracious in defeat, Arsene and Bendtner having nothing but praise for Barcelona.
“First I want to congratulate Barcelona and wish them good luck. Over the two games they deserved to qualify. They are a very good side but of course they have Messi who can make a difference at any moment in the game. He can take advantage of every mistake we make.”
“I believe we played quite well. We started strong, had a good opportunity to score the second goal and were a bit unlucky because we had a good chance when Bendtner was not offside. The regret I have is that we made too many mistakes defensively for a game like that. They were always first on the ball and we were punished for it.”
“The defeat is very difficult to handle because when you go out of the Champions League the next day you are in front of a very empty future. We have to deal with the disappointment and make sure that we are ready for the next game.”
“We made a great start and it was very important in the five minutes after we scored that we were tight. But in the end, if you look at the whole game they were a better team and deserved to win.”
“Messi scored four fantastic goals and is a phenomenal player in a great team.
“At the moment, I would say he is the best player in the world.
“It is easy to make up excuses but, on the day, with what happened they were a better team than us. I would rather get beaten by a better team, to be able to say we did what we could, rather than be robbed in the last minute.”
Anyways, onwards and upwards. We might have played the best team on Tuesday, but our next game is against Sp*rs- will definitely be a much easier game! It’s the League or nothing for us and if we can give them a good hiding, that’ll inject a huge amount of confidence for the rest of the campaign. I’m looking forward to that. We might not be the best team in the world- that’s Barcelona- but let’s show that at least we’re the best team in North London!
Come on Arsenal!