The beauty of sport is that eventually all of the talking ends and the players sort the right from the wrong. Seldom has a single game exposed so many commonly held opinions to be blatant falsehoods, as did Arsenal against Barcelona Wednesday night.
Below are the most popular beliefs that did not stand up to reality.
Ibrahimovic Never Shows Up on the Biggest Stage
Every time the big Swede takes on English competition, the press dusts off this old cliche. It is true that he had failed to score against English sides before, but until now he had never played for a genuine contender to the European crown. He also played against English teams at a period in time when they dominated Europe.
His record of winning every domestic league he competed in for six seasons running never seemed to matter. Neither did the emphatic goal that sunk Real Madrid in his first Clásico. Now that he has scored a brace against an English team, perhaps he will be accepted as a quality player.
Foreign Teams Struggle With the Pace of Premiership Play
Perhaps the biggest cliche in all of European football is the superior "pace" of English football. English teams are certainly very physical, and run around quite a bit, but describing the way they play as "high paced" is misleading.
Barcelona ran just as much as Arsenal according to UEFA player tracking. They also ran the Premiership title contenders ragged by moving the ball faster than they were used to. The pace at which Barcelona move the ball is as high as anywhere the world, and that is much more important than how much players run without the ball.
There Is a Conspiracy Of UEFA Referees To Favor Barcelona
For years the paranoid have assaulted the ears of everyone else with stories of a conspiracy within European football that goes all the way to the top. Some claimed Blatter was responsible, others Platini. Often, the bias was motivated by a hatred of the English, or at the very least, a desire to avoid an all-English final. Chelsea are mostly responsible for this trend, but on the evidence from Wednesday it is hard to claim that Barcelona received any help at all.
In one of his rare incursions into the Arsenal box Leonel Messi burst past Clichy and was clearly taken down from behind by the French defender. While it was a clear foul, most neutral viewers would admit it wasn't the kind of foul usually given as a penalty. Later in the game, Carles Puyol put his body between Cesc Fabregas and the ball and received a kick in the back of his thigh.
The highly-rated Massimo Busacca whistled for a penalty and sent the Barca captain marching. Looking at the two incidents together, it is very hard to argue that Barca are the recipients of any favoritism at all.
There Is a Conspiracy Of Spanish Referees To Favor Barcelona
Led by the Madrid-based tabloid AS, Spanish commentators have taken to describing the "Villarato," a vague term for a conspiratorial apparatus led by Spanish FA president Jose Maria Villar.
According to the story, Villar has been influencing referees to gift points to Barcelona ever since Florentino Perez had the temerity to vote for another candidate, in 2003. That personal slight cost Real Madrid the embarrassment of seven years of undeserved trophies going to their arch-rivals. Talk about holding a grudge.
Yet if Barcelona were only able to win on account of favors from Spanish referees, how do you explain their excellent performances in Europe? The first half display against Arsenal is one for the ages. Surely Villar can't be the reason they pass and move so well, can he?
Arsenal and Barcelona Play the Same Kind Of Football
This was the most repeated axiom in the week leading up to the match. They said we would witness an exhibition of beautiful football. It would be artful, attacking, and free of cynicism.
The truth was that these two teams have some clear similarities, but are built to play very differently. Arsenal, for all their good combination play, are essentially a fast counter-attacking side.
The possession tilt was enormous, as were the passing statistics. All told, Barcelona completed 533 passes to Arsenal's 265. If we look at short pass completion rates, Arsenal had 68 percent to Barca's 84 percent (51 percent to 90 percent in the first half). The only place Arsenal rivalled Barcelona was in long passes and solo runs.
Both teams are entertaining to watch, and are more similar to each other than to the myriad of defensive teams out there, but the difference in attacking style was plain for all to see.
Fabregas Is Better Than Xavi
For those who only watch the Premiership, I can understand the adoration of Cesc. Yet for the two players who most resemble Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola, Xavi is still the master, and Fabregas the apprentice.
Xavi gave a clinic to Arsenal fans on how to control the tempo of a game at the very highest level. He played 112 passes and completed 85 percent of them. Fabregas, whose team was only relevant for 30 minutes of the match, completed 78 percent of his 39 passes.
Xavi, who is eight years Fabregas' senior, also ran the same distance (12 Km) and had an assist. He has also yet to receive a yellow card, and will play in the Camp Nou.
Bendtner Isn't Good Enough For Arsenal
He may be a bit ponderous, and have questionable decision making at times, but without him, the tie would be over as a contest. His pass put Walcott through on goal, and he assisted Fabregas in the play that led to the penalty. He also had Arsenal's best chances outside of the two goals.
Apart from the direct running of Eboue and Walcott, Bendtner was the only threat to Barca's goal all night.
Almunia Is the Weak Link in This Arsenal Side
The Spaniard was not perfect on the night, but he was arguably Arsenal's best player. He can be faulted for his role in the first goal, but his error was hardly the biggest, and the finish was so good, that the debate may be academic.
In a game when the team in front of him was so completely overwhelmed for long stretches, he alone kept them in the match. The fact that Arsenal were so thoroughly outplayed by every big club they have played this season, means improvements in goal will not suffice. If Arsenal are to win major titles, much more needs to be addressed than Almunia's occasional errors.
The Defending Champions Are Simply Too Good For Arsenal
For all of Barcelona's superiority, Arsenal are still in it. It is hard to imagine a more one-sided match than the first half of this one, yet Arsenal showed that they have the weapons to do damage. A single goal will do, and Arsenal are capable of much more than that.
As Guardiola said post match: "Glory won't count for much if we don't make the next round." He knows there are no guarantees in football. It is all to play for at the Camp Nou.
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