For those of you who missed it, Michael Botsford and I did a sort of joint preview very similar to this one before the first leg of the tie between Arsenal and Barcelona three weeks ago. After getting excellent feedback from most readers, we decided to do it again for the second leg. The initial questions are basically a review of the first leg match, while the rest are attempts to preview the upcoming second leg.
We hope you enjoy it. Please do read Part 2 as well!
Readers of my articles will know, I’m not the biggest fan of writing with clichés. But there are some games, and some instances where you can’t help yourself, and you can see why these clichés have become clichés.
As clichés go, it was one of the best examples of a game of two halves that football could possibly create, ignoring the match at St. James’ Park. Arsenal won because they didn’t capitulate like other teams might have done against Barcelona’s patient passing game, and actually (this might get confusing) played like teams who play against Arsenal usually do. But against Barcelona, while still maintaining the touch of quality that Arsenal almost usually go onto the pitch with.
It may seem like a cliché, but Arsenal won because they scored more goals. After all, that is how you win a football match. Tactically, Arsenal were almost perfect; you can never fully stop Barcelona’s attack, but Arsenal did a great job containing it. Cristiano Ronaldo should definitely take a few lessons from Nasri and Walcott; their defensive commitment was absolutely key to stopping Barcelona’s attacks.
Trailing 0-1 from an early stage, Arsenal knew how to be patient, and as soon as Barcelona showed some complacency, they took control of the match and took their chances to turn the match on its head, showing that they’re one of the best counterattacking teams in the world.
As the Barcelona players have been quoted as saying after the match, they were at times superior and should have won. I think this attitude spilled out onto the pitch, and affected their attacking and finishing.
Arsenal do not have the most rock-solid defence, and there are instances (particularly the Messi chip) where Barcelona should have scored. But they didn’t, and Arsenal scored two excellent goals.
While Arsenal played very well indeed, Barcelona have only themselves to blame for throwing away their early lead. Without being brilliant, Barcelona were pretty solid in the first half and could even have scored more goals.
In the second half, however, everything changed: the team stopped pressuring high up the pitch and let Arsenal get back into the game. Putting Keita in Villa’s place was a statement that Barcelona were content to hold on to their lead. Such attitude is contrary to everything the club stands for and they paid a very high price.
Also, the match came at a time that is traditionally negative for Barcelona under Pep Guardiola: mid-February. Ever since Pep took charge, this is the time of the season where Barcelona drop more points in the league, play worst in the Champions League and don’t seem as sharp and fit as usual.
I’m going to say yes, despite Barcelona sometimes playing the team in red off the pitch. A draw probably would have been a fairer result in terms of the football played, but Arsenal played with more heart and cutting edge, and it’s difficult, even trying to be Mr. Objective, to say they didn’t deserve the victory.
Yes, they did. Arsenal might have caught some lucky breaks in the match (such as Messi morphing into Emile Heskey in front of goal and Valdés making an unusual mistake, not to mention the ridiculously disallowed goal in the first half), but they deserved that good fortune. Arsenal played in a very intense and determined way, and were definitely the hungrier side on the night. The win was surely a deserved one for Arsenal and their supporters, who created a great atmosphere for their team.
Here’s a fact that will certainly please Arsenal fans: it was the first time Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona ever lost a match with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta all starting.
Picture the scene: The whole day I had been bubbling with anticipation, discussing the match and potential results with just about anybody I could find who spoke the same language as me. Writing the first fan’s perspective article myself and Manuel did meant I had been thinking about the game for longer than would usually have done, and it was a permanent fixture for about a week before.
Logging on to Facebook before the game, the amount of “GO ON ARSENAL” statuses, even from non-Arsenal fans, almost made me teary eyed with pride.
So at halftime I felt like a castrated nymphomaniac. I didn’t want to even talk, we were ordering pizzas and I accidentally ordered what must have been the hottest pizza in existence, because I couldn’t even concentrate.
The concentration probably went like this: “Michael, do you want the extra hot pizza with added jalapenos and hot peppers, soaked in petrol” – “Sure, whatever. I don’t even care anymore”. I was predicting the worst.
I was predicting Barcelona to continue running rings around Arsenal, score one or two more and take a safe lead into the second leg. Needless to say, I didn’t quite get it right, and the second half was very different from the first.
The pizza was still far too hot, but the game became so good I almost didn’t care anymore… almost, football doesn’t fully block my taste buds.
Arsenal’s tactics changed, Wenger began to use a system similar to the one I had recommended in the previous article. The number of threats to Barcelona’s goal multiplied while Messi, Villa and Xaviesta really couldn’t get their act together.
The main turning point was of course Villa coming off for Keita, which showed a real lack of desire on Barcelona’s part and gave Arsenal the momentum and space to attack more liberally. Of course, we were still fortunate that Barcelona didn’t score but the difference maker in the second-half was definitely the tactics.
Barcelona didn’t maintain the pressure. This gave Arsenal an opportunity to seize the initiative, which they took full advantage of. Pep’s decision to bring in Keita for David Villa didn’t help at all either, as it highlighted Barcelona’s uncharacteristic defensive approach.
Pep probably knew the team’s fitness wasn’t at its best, but playing defensively is never the answer. When facing a team like Arsenal, allowing them to get back into the game can only prove suicidal.
Arsenal’s attitude was also a huge factor; they never showed fear, took risks and it paid off.
For Arsenal, most players gave the sort of performance you would expect; there were no flops. So many column inches have been given to Jack Wilshere I’d almost rather not mention his name and quell the hype surrounding him. Koscielny had a fine game against Barcelona, and while he is still capable of making mistakes, that Wednesday night he was excellent.
For Barcelona, most players played as expected although I was expecting Messi to have far more impact than he did. His slide-through ball for the first goal was well timed and weighted, but aside from that he was a littler quieter than his form suggested he would be. Flop he is not, but below his excellent standards… maybe. Pedro was similar to a pin dropping in his quietness – although Clichy deserves praise for that, and Maxwell also showed that the only place he’ll ever be able to match Walcott is on his Xbox.
If I had to pick one stand-out performer from each team, it would have to be Jack Wilshere for Arsenal and Éric Abidal for Barcelona.
Despite his tender age, Wilshere put in an extraordinary performance and was arguably the Man of the Match. His performance was all the more impressive if we consider that he was up against Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, a World Cup-winning midfield trio. Still, it was Wilshere who stood out on the night, which really is a testament to his performance. He completed 93% of his passes during the game. Only Xavi and Iniesta boasted (slightly) higher passing success rates.
As for Eric Abidal, he has been absolutely outstanding this season, both at centre-back and left-back. The Arsenal match was no different, as no one could get past Abidal. On a day where Piqué and Maxwell underperformed, Abidal was the only one saving Barcelona’s defense from collapse. Brilliant stuff from the man who once said that if Barcelona didn’t renew his contract, he’d just retire from football altogether.
As for the flops, I’d go with Alex Song and Lionel Messi. Alex Song was extremely lucky not to have been sent off in the first half; kicking Barcelona players was pretty much all he did while on the pitch. Taking him off the pitch for Arshavin proved to be a very good decision and the catalyst to Arsenal’s reaction.
Finally, saying Lionel Messi was a flop is certainly a very controversial statement. I wouldn’t say he was horrible, but he has set the standards so high for himself than his performance must be considered a bit disappointing. Sure, he assisted Villa and he caused troubles to the Arsenal defense, but he had a disastrous night in front of goal. A normal Messi could have put the tie to bed in the first half.
This might be a bit harsh, but (extremely) high expectations come with the territory of being the most talented player of this generation by such a huge distance. I’m confident that Messi will be his usual brilliant self in the second leg.
Pedro’s performance must have been a real letdown to the Barcelona fans and the club. I’ve seen him for Spain and for his club and he’s been excellent, I really like his style and thought he definitely could have a goal in him. As it was Clichy absolutely nullified him. I hope he can do it again!
Guardiola’s performance is largely judged on what he has been able to do before the game, but during the game I thought the Villa-Keita substitution he made was horrible. He should have also said more to his team at half-time, let them know that Arsenal were not a team to just capitulate. Maybe he did, and the players didn’t listen, but it’s one game in his short career that I’m sure he’ll be eager for people to forget about.
Jack Wilshere, for the reasons mentioned before, and also Laurent Koscielny. The French centre-back showed unexpected calmness and composure and did a very good job dealing with Barcelona’s attacking trio. Finally, I was surprised with Nasri; not so much with what he produced offensively, but with his excellent work ethic and willingness to track back and help in defense.
I personally expected it to be a classic, just check my last article, so yes I thought it was as good. Obviously, the comeback wasn’t on the same scale as Liverpool against AC Milan, but it was a game that drew you in from the first minute and only allowed me to breath at a normal rhythm once the final whistle had been blown.
I think it was, yes. It was a very intense match, excellent football all throughout the ninety minutes, barely any long balls, a fascinating contrast of styles (Barcelona’s possession vs Arsenal’s fast, direct counterattacks) and a surprising and epic comeback in the end. It had everything people could possibly have expected. It was certainly the most entertaining match of the Champions League this season so far.
Far too much is being made of this statistic, as interesting as it is. First of all, despite how good he is and the illusion he’s been around for a long time, Messi is only 23. So the number of games he has played in England is pretty low – I think just seven. He also hasn’t been Barcelona’s leading light since the start of time, it’s only in the last three years that he has become as good as he is. If they were saying it about a more experienced striker like Raul, it might be a little more bizarre.
The other factor is that is much harder to score away from home in the Champions League, when you’re playing against Europe’s finest. The British teams being consistently amongst the best in the tournament. Barcelona are one of the teams that underperform slightly outside of the Camp Nou, but make up for it when they’re at home. Eventually Messi will score in the UK, and I’m sure Barcelona fans will be hoping it is in the final, at Wembley.
They are ridiculous and ultimately meaningless. Much as the deluded English media likes to think otherwise, England does NOT set the benchmark for others as far as football is concerned. I take these “accusations” as seriously as I would if Messi were accused of never having scored in France (also true, also irrelevant).
The truth is that Messi is a lot better than any player who has ever graced the Premier League. The fact that he hasn’t yet scored in the UK is merely coincidence and it is sure to end sooner or later. I wonder what the English media will come up with when that day comes. About two years ago, the story was that Messi had never scored against English opposition… and he scored in the final against Manchester United. A year ago, the story was that it had been a fluke… and he scored four past Arsenal in one of the most memorable individual performances of all-time.
Sooner or later, the English media will have to accept the fact that the best players are not in the Premier League and they’ve never been. There is a common characteristic to every all-time football great: none played in the Premier League. The English league isn’t a benchmark for anything or anyone.
Before the first leg, I had my fair share of nerves on behalf of Arsenal. I looked with gooey eyes at Barcelona’s form, despaired over our inability to hold onto 4-0 leads, and judged our chances of going through to be fairly low.
Now with a one goal advantage, it would be ignorant and disrespectful towards Barcelona to really suggest that we are now the favourites or anything. I’m certainly more confident, but we have to play as well as we did in the second half, throughout the whole of the next match if we want to get through, because Barcelona have shown their home form in the Champions League is much better than their away form.
A bit less confident of course. Trailing is far from an ideal situation, even if Barcelona did get the all-important away goal. However, knowing Pep and these players and everything they’ve done so far, it’s impossible not to be confident. These players have proved their worth time and again and there’s no reason whatsoever to doubt them.
However, things won’t be easy, especially since Puyol is almost certain to miss the match. Without both Puyol and Piqué out, I think Busquets will be dropped to centre-back alongside Abidal, which means Mascherano will start as a defensive midfielder. I fully trust Busquets and I believe Mascherano will finally prove that he was a good signing, but I would be a lot more confident with Puyol and Piqué. This situation is by no means new to Barcelona: they beat Arsenal last season with both Puyol and Piqué out, and also beat Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final with an improvised defense. Given these precedents, I believe Barcelona still have what it takes to advance to the quarter-finals at the expense of the Gunners, despite the absence of their two main centre-backs and as long as Milito is nowhere near the starting lineup (if you do play, please feel free to prove my fears unwarranted, Gabriel).
After the success our first leg project had, we decided to add something new this time - an "Ask Each Other" section. Michael has asked five questions, which I'll answer here. I also asked Michael five questions - the answers can be found in Part 2.
I don’t think he will be that big a loss, actually. Piqué hasn’t been at his best lately, very far from it. Maybe it’s his new girlfriend who’s keeping him distracted. Now, I know that most footballers have WAGs, but Piqué’s just happens to be Shakira!
Whether Shakira has anything to do with it or not, the truth is that Piqué’s performance have been far from impressive. His performance at the Emirates was particularly unimpressive. This is a huge contrast with Éric Abidal, who has been played at a superb level for the whole season.
The main problem with Piqué’s absence is that Puyol hasn’t managed to regain fitness in time, which means that Barcelona will be without their two main centre-backs. While Abidal provides more than enough safety, it’s still not clear who will partner him. Personally, I’d choose Busquets to play at centre-back and slot Mascherano in Busquets’s usual position
I really, really don’t want to see Milito playing. He makes me very nervous. Busquets has already proved he can excel at the centre-back position and I’m confident a partnership with Abidal would be a successful one. It’s no Puyol & Piqué, but should be enough to contain Arsenal’s attack. I also hope to see Adriano at left-back, Maxwell doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Their attitude and just how bad they wanted to win the game. I knew Arsenal were a very good team, one that could cause trouble, but their incredible hunger is something that neither I nor the Barcelona players were waiting. The celebrations in the end were certainly the hardest I’ve ever seen a team celebrate a narrow first leg win in such an early Champions League knockout stage. That just epitomized Arsenal’s tremendous attitude and will to win, which hadn’t been quite seen in last season’s tie.
No, of course not. No one in the Barcelona organization was ever under any illusion that they were invincible. In fact, Pep had said many times that is not the case. Everyone is fully aware the defeat is a part of the game and always a possibility when facing very good teams. Their feet have always been well on the ground.
If anything, the defeat reminded everyone of Barcelona’s away woes in Europe. Impossible as it may seem, Barcelona have never won an away match in the Champions League knockout rounds under Guardiola: five draws and two defeats.
Interesting question. As far as the football itself goes, Arsenal could learn to pressure like Barcelona when they don’t have the ball. Playing beautiful attacking football is not enough to win trophies, as Barcelona understood in time.
Also, Arsenal should learn from Barcelona’s youth policies and promote their own youth players instead of signing/poaching young talents from all around the world. One of the main secrets behind the unprecedented success Barcelona have enjoyed over the last few years is the bond that most core players have to the club. Barcelona isn’t just the club they play for, it’s THEIR club, the club they love. This means that they will always give 1000% for the club. It also means that the chances of a Fabregas saga ever happening with players like Puyol, Messi, Xavi or Iniesta are very slim. All these players have already stated that, if it is up to them, they’ll stay at Barcelona until they retire (Iniesta has even said that, after retiring, he wants to be a coach at Barcelona).
This is not the case at Arsenal, and how could it be when some of their so-called youth products didn’t even play for Arsenal’s youth system at all?
I think they’d do just fine. I believe good teams are good everywhere. Arsenal would be one of the main contenders in Spain just like they are in England, and Barcelona would be the main contender in England just like they are in Spain.
Both teams would have to adapt to a different type of football, different refereeing, different schedule, etc… but they’d do fine.
Hope you enjoyed it. Don't forget to read Part 2.