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.

Match report: Arsenal relapse and collapse

Newcastle Utd 4-4 Arsenal

Having sailed serenely through the busy shipping lanes of the new year – W4, D1, L0 in the league with just one goal conceded in the process – Arsenal were well and truly depth-charged at Newcastle.

That a team has never before lost a four-goal lead in Premier League history tells you all you need to know about the second 45 minutes yesterday. It was a calamity, a shambles – it was, in fact, a reprisal of our speciality dish, the Collaps-o-Arsenalâ„¢. It’s a dish we’re becoming sick of the taste of. I won’t bother twisting the knife reminding you of the gory details, but suffice to say the words ‘Spuds’ and ‘Wigan’ still make my spleen vent. You can now add the word Newcastle to the lexicon.

Alan Shearer described it as his favourite game of all time on Match of the Day last night. You know what Al, I might beg to differ.

The difference between our slickness, dominance and all-round excellence in the first half, and the wheezing wreck that was desperate for the final whistle to blow in order to retain at least a modicum of dignity, was so extreme that there have to have been some catalysts. Well, there were three.

Firstly, Djourou’s knee injury in the 49th minute. He hobbled off to be replaced by Squillaci. Now, whatever you think of Squillaci as a fourth-choice centre-back (some think he’s ok, some look at him with the same vacant, bloodshot eyes with which they viewed Silvestre), it’s pretty clear that he and Koscielny are our least effective centre-back pairing.

Secondly, Diaby’s red card. Barton came thumping in on him, and while he got the ball, he also could have buckled Diaby’s leg. Diaby not surprisingly took offence, handbagged first Dolly Barton and then the Nolan Blister, and promptly received his marching orders. A soft red card in terms of the harshness of the offence, but a red card nonetheless and a slice of idiocy from our number two.

This was the bugle call for a general collapse, and all the ingredients were there. A weaker back line and just as crucially, a weaker defensive shield. Without Song, and now Diaby, it fell to Fabregas and Wilshere to hold the line and it was just too much. Eboue and Rosicky did absolutely nothing of value when they came on. Two players whose days are, I would wager, very much numbered at Arsenal.

Thirdly, the referee, Phil Dowd, who was horrendous. The first penalty he gave was softish but giveable, but for the second one, when we were still 4-2 up, he magicked an offence out of thin air. Barton got away scott-free all afternoon, and when the Nolan Blister put Szczesny in a headlock for getting the ball out of his own net, he booked Szczesny. He had a shocker and when you are up against phantom decisions too, it’s always going to be harder to keep your cool.

After the invisible penalty, events took on an inevitability of their own and when Dolly won a free kick (having flung his arms skywards just to make sure the referee saw it), Tiote lashed the equaliser home from a clearance. In the end, remarkably, we could have lost it but there it ended.

Catalysts notwithstanding, it was far from our finest hour. Or to be precise, our finest forty-five minutes. We simply could not withstand the onslaught – this from a team that had just sold its best striker. All of our cohesion and organisation went out the window, we panicked. It was awful to see. But sadly, not unprecedented.

Mercifully, we actually ended the day clawing a point back off Man Utd, who finally lost, but what will this do to our confidence, just when our tails were up? It was a bitter and embarrassing blow. Wenger was livid aftewards, stonewalling questions with “My opinion is not important”. But he did say:

“Psychologically the damage is bigger tonight because everyone is very disappointed in the dressing room. Only the future will tell.”

We play Barcelona in ten days.

One final thing: East Lower now has a Facebook Page. Do with it what you will. Blog entries should come through via a feed, and I’ve stuck up a photo of some old socks. If that doesn’t entice you in, nothing will.