Tonight’s game at Camp Nou will forever be remembered as the night when referee Massimo Busacca’s terrible officiating not only ended Robin Van Persie’s night early, but also denied plucky Arsenal when they were on their way to pulling off a famous upset.
Well, in North London it will.
In Barcelona, it will be remembered as another game when this special team stuck unwaveringly to their commitment to play their football, their way. It will be remembered as another step towards the latter stages of a trophy that they are looking to win for the third time in six seasons. It will also be remembered as the night on which Lionel Messi became Barcelona’s all time top scorer in European competition.
Excuse the lack of sympathy, but there seems to be little evidence for the claims of Van Persie and his manager, Arsene Wenger, that Arsenal would most likely have won the tie had their lone striker not seen red. Of course, we will never know what would have happened had Arsenal continued with eleven, but given that they finished the match with only 25% possession and no shots at goal, it is difficult to question Barca’s dominance.
That said, Arsenal were ahead on aggregate at the time of Van Persie’s dismissal, albeit courtesy of a Sergio Busquets own goal rather than a goalbound effort of their own. With 35 minutes remaining at the time of the dismissal, it is likely that Barca would have had the bulk of possession and territory, as they had up to that point.
Whether Van Persie would have made much difference at the defensive end is doubtful, but he may well have provide them with the relief of holding the ball up on occasion, as well as being the focal point of any counter attack.
Claims about Busacca bowing to the pressure of the occasion, the pressure of the Camp Nou crowd, are probably not aware of the referee’s background. Yes the second booking was harsh, but this is a referee who has already officiated both a UEFA Cup Final and a Champions League Final. Suggestions that he somehow carried a home bias are both mischievous and unbalanced, particularly given his decision to ignore a blatant penalty when Diaby brought down Messi in the first half.
Rather than focussing solely on one decision of the referee, it is also worth celebrating some of the football played by the home side. Against an Arsenal side who defended resolutely and are also highly capable on the ball themselves, Barcelona dominated from first minute to last and put on a master class of possession.
At the attacking end, midfield maestro Andres Iniesta was simply magical, his array of flicks and tricks creating numerous openings, with his quick feet and clever through ball laying on Messi’s brilliant opening goal on the stroke of half time. Messi’s clever take was followed by a sublime clip over the onrushing Manuel Almunia, leaving him with a simple finish to volley home and put his side ahead.
The goal came at a terrible time for Arsenal, who while offering no attacking threat of their own, had looked reasonably strong in their own defensive third. The goal also owed a lot to a horrendous choice by captain Cesc Fabregas, who chose to try and backheel on the edge of his own box, a decision which let in Iniesta to produce the aforementioned assist.
The half time break brought a chance for Arsenal to regroup and formulate a second half plan, but in truth it was normal service resumed pretty much as soon as the second half began. That all changed seven minutes into the second half, when Barca were shocked by an own goal from stand-in centre back Sergio Busquets. In the youngster’s defence, he saw the ball very late after it was missed by Diaby, but it was a big error on an otherwise comfortable night for Busquets.
Only three minutes later, and the tie was turned on its head once more, thanks to that controversial dismissal; Van Persie’s receiving a second yellow for taking a shot very soon after being flagged offside, with Busacca clearly deeming that he had intentionally ignored his whistle.
Only Van Persie truly knows whether or not he heard the whistle, but even if he had, it is rare to see a player receive a yellow card for such a borderline offence, let alone a second yellow in a game of this magnitude.
It is somewhat ironic that Van Persie received such a severe punishment while in the act of attempting what Arsenal didn’t manage for the rest of the evening; a shot. The forward will surely rue his decision to swing a hand into the face of Dani Alves in the first half, a decision for which he received his first caution.
From that point on, Barca’s dominance simply stepped up another notch and for all Arsenal’s admirable effort, it appeared to be only a matter of time before they would make the breakthrough. That breakthrough came courtesy of further brilliance from Iniesta, who broke through midfield, beat a man and laid on a great through ball which was cleverly touched on by Villa before being calmly finished by Xavi.
That goal brought the tie dead level, meaning extra time was on the horizon, but two minutes later that possibility was extinguished thanks to a far less controversial decision from Busacca. Barca winger Pedro broke into the box, touched the ball ahead of Laurent Koscielny and was clearly taken out by a clumsy challenge from the defender, with Messi stepping up to slot home his second, Barca’s third, and a goal that broke Rivaldo’s record as the clubs top European scorer.
Despite leading the tie on aggregate, Barca continued to attack, clearly believing that it was best to put the tie out of sight rather than risk sitting back and risking Arsenal getting a goal that would take them through.
The home side created several further chances, but almost paid for their wastefulness when a mistake from Adriano out on the left allowed Wilshere to rob him and play in Bendtner with only a magnificent last ditch challenge from Javier Mascherano preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity.
That proved to be the last chance of note, with Barca heading through to the quarter finals, and Arsenal heading home spitting feathers, or at least tweeting them (Van Persie and Wilshere have already taken to Twitter to criticise Busacca) about the day that they were robbed in Barcelona.
Valdes: Difficult to assess given that he had virtually nothing to do other than take a few goal kicks. Had no chance with Busquets’ own goal. 6
Alves: Spent virtually the whole game in Arsenal’s half, with the ball to release Alves behind the Arsenal left back Clichy proving to be a favourite for the home side. Some great play, but also a lack of interest in defending which left Barca vulnerable at times. 6
Busquets: His night will be remembered for the own goal, but the youngster surely deserves credit for looking accomplished while playing out of position in a game of this magnitude. Smart passing, nothing silly (bar the own goal mistake) and an all round comfortable night. 6
Abidal: The Frenchman has been a revelation at centre back this season, and tonight was possibly his best performance to date. Led the defence well in the absence of Puyol and Pique, won a number of key challenges and looked assured on the ball. 8
Adriano: Brilliant performance going forward from a player who may well have made the left back spot his own. Hit the post in the first half, broke into the box on several occasions, although blotted his copy book late on when he lost the ball and almost let Bendtner clean through on goal. 7
Mascherano: Simply superb. After a rocky start to his Barca career, the Argentine captain showed tonight exactly why he was brought in this summer. Smart use of the ball and a number of key tackles, including the absolutely vital one to take the ball off of Bendtner’s toe when he was clean through on Valdes. 8
Xavi: Barely put a foot wrong in a typically impressive performance. His use of the ball is second to none, and allows the attacking players to make the runs that cause so many problems. 7
Iniesta: The best player on the pitch. Not only did he create Barca’s first two goals, but his clever passes and strong running were a constant feature and a key reason for the home side’s dominance. 9
Pedro: Not his best game, but still won the vital penalty, and probably could have had another if he had chosen to go down after another clumsy challenge on the young winger. Quietly effective. 6
Messi: His first goal was pure brilliance, a piece of skill and composure that only he could have conjured up. Kept probing for an opening, but eventually had to settle for slotting home a spot kick to break the club record. 7
Szczesny: Desperately unfortunate to have to leave the game injured so early on.
Almunia (early replacement): Shaky at times, well beaten on the first goal, little chance with the other two, but also made several good saves. 6
Sagna: Was beaten on a number of occasions by Adriano, but luckily for him none of those occasions led to a goal. Did a decent job up against Villa. 6
Djourou: Did his best up against the best forward line in world football, and for much of the night looked to be a match for them. Arsenal’s best defender. 7
Koscielny: No faulting his effort, but his reckless challenges cost a number of free kicks, a penalty, and should probably have seen him receive a second yellow. Still has a lot to learn. 5
Clichy: No one had more to do than Clichy, who faced the daunting task of trying to combat both Pedro and Alves down his flank. Did a solid job on the most part in difficult circumstances, but unsurprisingly offered nothing going forward. 6
Diaby: Fairly anonymous. Deputising for the absent Alex Song, he didn’t offer the same intensity, and also didn’t see enough of the ball to showcase any of his considerable attacking qualities. 5
Wilshere: Another impressive performance from the youngster, who is fast becoming one of the team’s most important players. Struggled to cope with Xavi and Iniesta at times, but so did his much more experienced colleagues. 7
Rosicky: It is difficult to tell what Wenger sees in Rosicky, as the midfielder has lost all of the dynamism of his early years and now looks thoroughly off the pace against any quality opposition. 4
Fabregas: The Arsenal captain will take this defeat harder than anyone, particularly given his contribution to Barca’s first goal. Clearly carrying an injury, he barely had the ball and was a passenger throughout. 4
Nasri: Did his best in trying circumstances, breaking at pace on several occasions before usually finding himself hustled off the ball by a swarm of red and blue shirts. 6
Van Persie: Obviously disappointed to leave the field early, but the Dutch forward did very little of note while he was on the pitch, although that was not all his fault given that he usually found himself isolated. 5