Ref whistles while Robin works

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.

Arsenal look east / Leave the Cup alone

Will concentration be an issue after our big night on Wednesday? It has been for me. If I’ve watched van Persie’s and Arshavin’s goals once, I’ve watched them a hundred times. I’ve chewed the game over with anyone who cares to listen (and some who don’t), I’ve digested all the podcasts, I’ve modded my iPhone wallpaper (thanks Gunnerblog) and I’ve changed its ringtone to ‘Goal – van Persie Goal, van Persie Goal’ (thanks Arseblog). I have responded to all those well-wishers who texted, DM’d and rung me to congratulate me. Like I played a part! I merely shouted and jumped up and down and hugged other men and women. I have been on YouTube and the interwebs. Short of building a shrine in my front room, there’s not a lot more I can do. It needs to stop.

Today’s we’re off to Brisbane Road for our fifth round tie and it’s a classic cup match-up. The O’s are doing well and will suspect – justifiably – that some of our better players will be given a breather today. As Arseblogger said yesterday, fighting on four fronts is an almost impossible task, so rotation has to happen. Wenger needs to get the balance right, but I would still expect the likes of Squillaci, Gibbs, Denilson, Bendtner, Chamakh and Rosicky to start today. Will they all start? Quite possibly, with a strong bench to call on should things need to change.

Leave the cup alone

Incidentally, debutant Mike Parry on 606 last night played devil’s advocate – I give him the benefit of the doubt because if he actually believed it, I despair – by claiming the FA Cup needs to be brought from its malaise by seeding. His argument was that by having non-Premier League teams in the final never makes for a good game, so on that basis some kind of seeding needs to occur to prevent it from happening. The public wants to see the FA Cup final between the country’s biggest teams, he said. I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. As if cup finals between the top teams are special? The biggest clubs getting to the final more frequently is what’s making it less interesting, not more interesting. Liverpool v Man Utd in 1996? When was the last classic cup final between the ‘top four’?

And as if seeding as a concept works – look at the Champions League group stages. It’s got to the point where it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to stay in the Premier League than have a run in the cup, and it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to come fourth to get into the Champions League. Where is the glory of actually winning something?

I don’t pretend to have the answers but for my money it might be improved by the following:

1. Leave the format alone. Scrap replays, weeknight finals, more random TV-driven kick-offs? Just stop it. Ideas like this will kill it. We need to keep replays, because they are the essence of the cup. It gives smaller clubs a potential pay day and it motivates them. Leeds away was one of the most enjoyable games of our season. Leave it alone.
2. Include the FA Cup as part of all clubs’ season tickets. It works at Arsenal. Nobody complains. It might raise crowds elsewhere. And on top of that, if it’s a game the fans have to purchase, managers/chairmen might be forced to take it more seriously.
3. Make it more worthwhile financially. The winner currently gets £1,800,000. It shouldn’t be about the money, but seeing that it is, raise the pot given to those who get to the latter stages – QFs onwards – and it might just readjust some priorities.

Anyway, that’s my tupp’orth. I love the FA Cup, always have, always will. Don’t tinker too much with it, I say.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Match preview: Arsenal v Barcelona, the sequel

No sooner had we sunk Wolves on Saturday, my mind turned to this game. I have been thinking of nothing else since, except of course on Valentine’s day, when my mind briefly wandered. (Fulham should have won).

I said before the draw that I wanted Barca. The colony of butterflies inhabiting my gut and the general whiff of giddiness emanating from my pores tells me I was right to want this draw. There is nothing quite like pitting yourself against the best, and Barca are the best.

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the opening salvo of the home game against Barca last year. I’d never see anything quite like it; they went in for the kill from the off. It was less playing against us, more playing with us. It’s a shame it was my beloved on the receiving end, because that would have been quite a sight for a neutral.

Coming back to 2-2 that night was quite an achievement but it came at a cost. We lost Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas and Song at various points in the two legs, and we weren’t able to cope.

The challenge is no less daunting this time, but as Wenger asserts, the circumstances are different.

“We are in an ideal condition to face them,” said le Boss. “We cannot complain. We have the belief, the confidence and the players available. We are 90 per cent in February and that was not the case last year. I feel we are in an ideal position to face them.”

Forget the Cesc mindgames, forget Messi telling us how dangerous Walcott is – this all counts for nothing. It’s pre-game bluster. The main thing now is: how do we beat them?

The thing that struck me last time round more than anything else was the way Barca looked for the ball when they didn’t have it. They were as ruthless without the ball as they were with it – hunting in packs, pressing hard, giving us no space. It’s an approach that served us well against Chelsea in December in particular, so we can do it and we need to do it tonight. As Wilshere said, we need to get in their faces a bit. Controlled aggression, pressing hard, no sloppy passing.

Sid Lowe’s three lessons to heed are interesting, as are Smudger’s ‘five courses of action’. We’re not capable of all-out defence (I can almost see Wenger spitting his Shreddies out at the mere thought), so we’re going to have to concentrate on the pressing, the quick breaks and exploiting any space behind the full-backs. Above all, we need to believe we can do it. I’m not sure we did last time round.

We’ll miss the suspended Bacary Sagna but Nasri returns so we have everyone – Vermaelen notwithstanding – available.

I totally like can’t wait.

Is it 7.45pm yet?

Plovers or wagtails?

When you’re having a discussion – mid match – as to whether the skittish birds circling and swooping at the Grove are plovers or wagtails, you can safely assume that the fayre being served up on the pitch does not match the tucker promised on the menu.

Contenders or pretenders? On Wednesday night’s evidence we are frankly none the wiser. Arsenal ambled through the game until Partizan equalised, at which point there was a palpable upping of the ante. We duly scored two good goals and immediately took our foot off the gas again. Either we are the most astute, efficient and confident side you will see or we have a collective inability to see danger when it stares us in the face.

Still, we’re through with seemingly the minimum energy expended (last night at least – we should have sealed it weeks ago), and that can only be good news for Monday night’s match. Are Sky calling it Manic Monday? Magic Monday? Monumental Monday? Have they moved these big games to Mondays purely because they’ve expended their stock of Super Sundays and Battles of Britain?

A week today we will find out whether we face Bayern, Schalke, Real or Barcelona in the last 16 of the European Cup, and I’m all for the hottest potato of them all. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I have moaned incessantly about the flatness of the Champions League group stages (though we took it upon ourselves to make an easy group hard this year) so it’s a bit rich for me to then pray for the least glamorous of the four options on the table. Arsenal’s accountants will no doubt disagree, as will those who argue (strongly, I concede) that we need all the help we can get if we genuinely harbour hopes of getting to Wembley in May. But me – Arsenal v Barcelona or Arsenal v Real Madrid is what this competition is all about. I’ll have a B please, Bob [that doesn’t really work – Ed].

In fact, the European draw is one of the things I ramble on about with arseblogger on today’s Arsecast. Fire it up when it’s cooked.

That’s about all. I’ll leave you to mull over the most vexing and mentally straining of issues to face gooners today, namely: is it actually possible for both Chelski and the Spuds to lose when they play each other this weekend?

Bandage them up and wheel them out

This is a short, excitable update ahead of our European Cup quarter-final decider in the Nou Camp.

With the tweets of the gooners already or soon to be in Barcelona beginning to land on my tweetstep, things will only get more giddy from hereon in. Am I jealous of them? What do you reckon. The only things I don’t envy are their mobile phone and bar bills.

It’s almost impossible not to mention the injuries. With Song out, we are now five players short of our best eleven. That’s just about as painful as things can realistically get, short of Vermaelen dropping a bottle of HP Sauce on his foot at breakfast tomorrow morning.

On top of that, Rosicky is 50:50, Campbell is a doubt and cobbling an XI together is becoming a feat of creative accountancy.

As you’d expect, Wenger is bullish and Walcott is too – “There is no point playing within ourselves, we have all got to be at it” he said – but the odds of an Arsenal win, from Arsenal’s very own official partner Paddy Power, are 11/2 and that tells you all you need to know about the size of the challenge ahead.

The point to which Walcott alluded is a good one. For all Barcelona’s mesmeric football in the first leg – and I still maintain it was as good as I have ever seen – if Arsenal start so tentatively tomorrow as they did last week, then the game will not be competitive for very long.

If our lads can learn anything from Barcelona’s approach, it’s that it is equally important to win the ball back when they don’t have it as it is to do fancy stuff with it when they do.

Easier said than done of course in front of 95,000 Catalans on a roomy pitch with half your mainstays in the land of crock.

Walcott’s blistering cameo last time round means he is a weapon Barcelona will fear. Whether he is unleashed from the start, or at a later point, remains to be seen. Personally, I wouldn’t risk keeping him as an impact sub as Arsenal do not have the luxury of time. He needs to start, and like every other man in our unfancied XI, he needs to be on the absolute crest of his game.

Over and out and all that. I am rip-roaringly excited but already entering a state of involuntary trembling.

Arsenal strike back in epic encounter

Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

Arsenal v Barcelona flags
North Bank flags

What an unbelievable game of football. My mind is still boggling. I’ve seen some good teams at the Grove in my time and I’ve seem some defiant comebacks too, but both on the same night? As a spectacle, this one was epic.

Let it be said that Barcelona were staggeringly good for the first half an hour or so. This December, I will notch up a quarter of a century of watching Arsenal live and I am struggling to think of a better side than Barcelona in the opening phase of the match last night. Right from the whistle, they came at us. Their passing, movement and ball retention was so good that when I was later told the possession stats had been 71%-29% in their favour, I scratched my head and thought: From where did we get 29%?

@feverpitch told me they completed 274 passes in the first half. We managed 91. What a stat.

It could not have been more lop-sided. It’s hard to say how much Arsenal contributed to Barcelona’s magnificence, but the bottom line is we could not get the ball at all. The big boys would not give it to us.

Time and again, it was the shot-stopping skill of Almunia that saved us. I have no recollection how many times Barcelona hooped one over the bar or had a shot blocked or parried by the Spaniard, but it was a minor miracle that we made it to half time at 0-0.

Then came the second half, as it tends to. Half way to a douze points performance from the British jury, Almunia then immediately contrived to scuttle miles out of his area. Ibrahimovic merely chipped it over the by now retreating keeper. Nul points from the Spaniard and we were 0-1 down.

0-2 followed after, when the giant Swede ran through our static defence and thumped it in. No way back.

Except something changed. That something was the last throw of the dice in the shape of Theo Walcott. What an enigma he can be. Having played his best 45 minutes of the season against Burnley some weeks ago, he has since once again retreated into the shadows. Last night, out he popped again with a performance that immediately got Barca rattled. He was direct, lightning-quick, put in penetrating crosses or passes and changed the dynamic of the game completely with his goal.

We came to life in the last fifteen glorious minutes. All of a sudden, anything looked possible. Fabregas was bundled over – red card for the bloke from Scorpion. Up Fabregas stepped, blasted it in, 2-2.

In doing so, of course, he did something to his leg and although he hobbled on against all odds, it looks to be a bad injury – possibly a broken leg. How do you carry on playing with a broken leg? Let’s hope it’s not that serious.

Shall I talk about the referee? I can’t be bothered but I thought he was hopeless. Five yellow cards? How?

Overall, a gutsy, incredible comeback from an Arsenal side that had been utterly outclassed but never gave up. For all the flaws of this side, our indomitable attitude is fast becoming our hallmark.

We’re still in it, by the hair on our chinny chin chin. Haha!

Just testing something below… feel free to vote…

Arsenal v Barcelona: the best draw of the lot

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

Another weekend, another match we can’t afford not to win, but for the time being at least we dream of Catalonia.

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.

Incidentally, the Champions League at this stage of the competition is a ridiculous misnomer, seeing it’s no longer a league half the remaining teams are not champions. Time to stick to calling it the European Cup.

Arsena v Barcelona has sub-plots all over the place. There’s the final in 2006, which we led in for so long but ultimately lost, there’s Thierry Henry, who scored a few goals for Arsenal once, and there’s Cesc Fabregas, who’s been on holiday to Barcelona once or something and is ogled covetously by them.

One sub-plot that some people are overlooking is of course Sol Campbell. Our scorer in 2006, he was playing for Notts County at Morecambe in August and now looks likely to be called upon to take on the European champions in a match that will be watched across the world by millions and millions. It’s a Lazarus-esque comeback for him.

Reading some of the bumph round this, the interesting stat for me is how much Arsenal’s team has changed in the intervening four years. It’s had an enormous overhaul.

Only three of the starting XI are still at the club – Eboue, Fabregas and Campbell – along with three of the benchwarmers (Almunia, Clichy, van Persie). Funnily enough, only three of the Barcelona starting XI are still at the club too, so the two teams are almost unrecognisable to those of four years ago.

It’ll be absolutely electric and I can’t wait already.

First thing’s first though, it’s West Ham at the Grove this evening. With Song, Fabregas and Rosicky back we have far more options, but as was shown at Hull last weekend, relegation-threatened opponents are often the most dangerous. They have a good record against us at home in recent years.

Nevertheless, we must win. Try the Prem Predictor if you must, and you will see how tight things are, as if you need reminding. Let’s push on.

I love the business end of the season when there’s still business to be done.