Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal
Another year, another aggregate defeat to Barcelona, but this one was tinged with a dose of ‘what if’.
What if, at 1-1, we had remained with eleven men? Would the game, as Wenger argues, have opened up and presented us with a really good opportunity to go through? And what if, at 3-1 and late in the day, Big Game Bendtner had not done a passable impression of Bad Touch Bendtner and steered Wilshere’s pass through to goal?
The trouble with this argument of course is that it’s based entirely on a hypothetical scenario. Personally, I think the result would have been the same. As Guardiola said post-match, we had barely strung three passes together all night. We didn’t have a single shot on goal. It was as one-sided a match as you will ever see.
But we will never really know. What is true is that with ten men, the task was virtually impossible and so it proved. The decision to send van Persie off was absurd. A second between the whistle and the shot, with 95,000 voices in your ears? The referee had no way of proving van Persie simply did not hear the whistle, so why did he give him a yellow card? It’s another answer we will never get because referees are a protected species. Don’t expect him to come over all contrite. However, van Persie has to accept his own share of the blame for a thoroughly pointless and predictable yellow card in the first half that made the second yellow so crucial. There was a rumpus after a tackle on Wilshere, van Persie got involved and he was sizzling with Dutch fury. You just knew the moment was not over and so it proved – he soon earned himself a card.
In keeping with the nature of the game, all the heroics yesterday came from our defence and defensive midfield. Djourou and Wilshere were immense. Almunia, when he came on, made save after save after save and although he let two goals in, he was faultless.
Wilshere, in particular, at 19, continues to show the way in terms of guts and drive. Everywhere else we struggled. Fabregas was ineffectual – as it turned out, he was injured again anyway – Rosicky, Diaby were swamped. Nasri, while willing, was unable to keep the ball either. It was a really tricky night against a side that will take some stopping.
The Crock List has not been compiled from last night but it looks once more as if we are shipping players at an alarming rate. Cesc needs more recovery time but Szczesny is the biggest worry, suffering a dislocated finger that could yet end his season. As brilliant as Almunia was at shot stopping last night, he does not command his goal in the way Szczesny does and I keep my undislocated fingers crossed for him.
To lose against Barcelona is not the end of the world; I just wish we could have done it on an even playing field for 90 minutes. As I said, it may well have made no difference but we can now only speculate.
Losing at the first knockout stage is not a disaster either, from a broader perspective, seeing we are still fighting hard domestically. The league, in particular, requires all the strength we can muster. The other two challengers for the title – if you include Chel$ea, which I do – are still in Europe and that will distract them.
So plenty to go for still. Manchester looms on Saturday.