ARSENAL 2 - 2 BARCELONA (Emirates Stadium)
By Shane Thomas
An 85th minute penalty from a limping Cesc Fabregas has kept Arsenal's heads above water in a thrilling 2-2 draw in the quarter-final, first-leg match at The Emirates Stadium. In a game that Barcelona had dominated, Arsenal managed to revive themselves after falling two goals behind in the second half.
However, it cannot be underestimated just how much in control the Spaniards were. In two short years their manager, Pep Guardiola has become football's Merlin, constructing a team that play football so bewitching that the opposition are rendered numb by its quality.
And Arsenal were truly beguiled. A combination of profligate finishing and some inspired shot-stopping from Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal goal kept Barca at bay. If I was a more egocentric gent, I would have thought that Guardiola had read my blog post leading up to this match (which can be found here - http://sportshistoryshow.blogspot.com/2010/03/terribly-sorry-theyre-from-barcelona.html) as he followed points one & two from it to the letter. The key to the match was that Barcelona did not allow Arsenal space in which to play. As soon as Arsenal were in possession, their players were accosted by a posse of yellow shirts, Barcelona perfectly grasping the notion that the quicker you get the ball back, the quicker you'll have it to hurt the opposition.
Arsenal, on the other hand, seemed happy to play Odysseus to Barca's coterie of sirens. They constantly stood off Barcelona, allowing the Spanish champions to pass around them at will. This was compounded by their back four defending far too deep. Their deference extended to them being careless in possession, appearing sluggish while the away side were full of alacrity. Indeed, the only way Arsenal could have given the Catalans a bigger invitation to score would be to have had a welcome mat emblazoned in the design of the Catalan flag in their goalmouth.
What was most worrying from an Arsenal perspective was how comprehensively they had been tactically outmaneuvered. Wenger had made some disastrous decisions before kick-off, playing both William Gallas and Fabregas, when it was clear to see that neither man was fit. Gallas had to leave with a recurrence of his calf injury in the first-half while Fabregas was a shadow of himself, wandering around the pitch like King Hamlet, but with less purpose.
As the second half began, Manuel Almunia undid all his excellent work in the first half. As Gerard Pique played a ball over the top of a ramshackle Arsenal defence, Almunia reckleesly rushed off his line. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who should have scored earlier, made no mistake this time, lobbing the ball over Almunia into an unguarded net. Zlatan repeated the trick once again, Arsenal's defensive line as disorganised as students during 'Freshers Week', the Swede had the freedom of Arsenal's penalty area and rifled the ball in to make it 2-0.
Wenger finally made his first good decision of the match by summoning Theo Walcott from the bench. This proved pivotal to the final score. Within minutes of his arrival, Barca's Sergio Busquets conceded possession and Nicklas Bendter played the ball inside Maxwell to free Walcott. The finish just good enough to beat Victor Valdes, the keeper getting a hand to the ball but unable to keep it out.
All of a sudden Barcelona were slightly rattled and the crowd sensed a potential Arsenal comeback. They had begun to pressure Barcelona more and kept the ball with increasing regularity. After Almunia denied Lionel Messi again when the Argentinian broke clear, Arsenal leveled the match with five minutes remaining.
Carles Puyol failed to clear a Walcott cross, and as the ball bobbled to Nicklas Bentder in the Barcelona penalty box the Dane provided a delicate touch to free Fabregas. The Arsenal captain got his legs entangled in the recovering Puyol's and the referee, Massimo Busacca, awarded the penalty. Busacca had a mixed match throughout, giving free-kicks that were actually good tackles, one of which resulted in Fabregas picking up a yellow card and a one-match suspension in the competition. He also missed a couple of good penalty shouts for Barcelona that for me, should have both been given. Credit must go to him however, for playing the advantage whenever he could, helping the enthralling spectacle that the match became.
This has been an interesting season for Fabregas. He was unfit and out-of-sorts all night, unable to have any impact on the game. But despite that, he fired home the penalty to level the scores and send the Arsenal fans into rapture. The execution of the penalty was quite telling. Fabregas normally places his spot-kicks with care, but knowing that he was suspended from next week's 2nd leg in Spain, he blasted this one into the net. Fabregas was discernibly crushed when he was booked and his penalty became a shot of outright defiance, a middle finger salute to the authority figure who has denied him his homecoming next week. The kick of the ball left Fabregas a lame duck, unable to run, struggling to walk and with a suspected broken leg. But he didn't seem to care. Arsenal were unable to make any more substitutions and he refused to leave the pitch. For a few brief minutes, Fabregas was channelling the spirit of Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One'.
In the midst of Arsenal's spirited comeback, it shouldn't be forgotten that Barcelona are fully in control of the tie. They were the dominant side throughout, making 533 passes to Arsenal's 265, and should have scored more than the two they did. I simply can't shake the feeling that Arsenal are like a fly that's had it's wings pulled off, furiously twitching, and clinging to any last semblance of life.
Expect Barcelona to bring out the fly swatter next Tuesday.
Here's the requisite link to see my player ratings for both teams. http://sportshistoryshow.blogspot.com/2010/03/arsenal-vs-barcelona-match-ratings.html
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