Yes he’s under there, my Man of the Match, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored the brace and more importantly two precious away goals that give us a significant advantage going into the home leg. This was an oddball, bittersweet match that shouldn’t have ended the way that it did.
For that, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Did Fabergas dive? This is debatable, and will be one of those matters of perspective, like Chelsea being cheated in last year’s semis. I’ve watched it a number of times now, and I have to say that I don’t think he dove. I think that he made the most of the contact with Puyol, but what player doesn’t do that in the box?
But if Puyol doesn’t whiff on clearing the pass from Walcott, who was busy making Maxwell his punk, then Fabregas isn’t in a position to dive. If Busquets doesn’t make a stupid, stupid play that gifts Arsenal possession on the break, then we don’t even concede that first goal. To win championships, you have to play championship football.
No, you can’t play championship football for 70 minutes. You have to play it for the whole match. And give Arsenal full credit for never giving up, for fighting their way back into a match that we dominated in every way except on the scoreboard. Give Arsene Wenger credit for doing what I’d hoped he wouldn’t, which was inserting Theo Walcott, who was licking his chops at going up against Maxwell, a player who on his good day is pokey.
During one of the previews, in the comments thread, I said that I worried about Walcott running loose at our defense. Now everybody sees why. Pace can unbalance a match in a way that few things can. They had it, we didn’t, and that’s that. Instead of 2-0 rolling into our house grinning, we have to actually play a football match, and play to win. We always do, but a 2-0 away goals lead is very different from 2-2, as anyone who follows this beautiful game of ours knows.
So I’m not blaming refs, I’m not blaming Fabregas. You do what you have to do to get your team in a position to win. This draw, this ugly, to my eyes completely unacceptable draw, is all on us.
But let’s start with the good, shall we, as Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic. And boy, did we start out with as spectacular a display of football as I have seen from us a long, long time. Simply put, we dominated possession, play and every other meaningful statistic, except for the scoreboard. We peppered Almunia with shot after shot, making him look good with out loose finishing that kept putting balls where he could get to them. Ibrahimovic did it, Messi did it, Xavi did it, Busquets did it. It wasn’t that Almunia had a world-class match. He got a lot of help from us.
Everywhere you looked, every player with the ball had choices, and forward choices. Often we have possession, but it’s meaningless possession as we stroke the ball around the midfield. This match, we were moving forward with the ball, creating danger in space as we charged toward their net, craving that critical first away goal. Messi and Busquets roamed the midfield like centurions, clamping down on any loose possession on their part as we challenged for every ball. Arsenal came out to try to put more pressure on us, and we just passed and moved with even more precision, making them look like far the lesser side.
The rare times that they got through, Valdes was on the case, including an amazing, point-blank save from Bendtner, that again did him a favor by being shot right at him. And somehow, we ended the first half with a 0-0 draw. People on the LiveBlog were slagging Ibrahimovic and why, I don’t know.
But that’s another story.
We came out in the second half and barely 20 seconds in, Ibrahimovic did exactly what we brought him for. He read the defense, and took perfect advantage of Arsenal’s high line to take an on-the-money pass from Pique. Almunia made the wrong call, coming out too far from goal, and Ibrahimovic lofted a first-touch shot over the keeper’s head for the 0-1 scoreline. The shot was as audacious as the taker of said shot was big, because it had to be perfect. And it was. It was just reward for our dominance, and it certainly looked as though more was coming.
But who knew it would be almost the same thing, as Ibrahimovic again took advantage of space, and Arsenal’s high line, taking a pass from Xavi in stride and smoking it high side past the keeper. He had the brace, and we had an insurmountable 0-2 lead, or so it seemed.
Then we stopped playing. This was a characteristic of the end of the Rijkaard regime when, like a cat with a dead mouse, we get bored and stop playing with the mouse. Then we discover that it was playing possum, and runs away …. toward our goal. I’ve already documented how they happened, and this shows why we need Abidal more than any player on our roster. Maxwell simply can’t deal with pacey wingers, and it killed us as Walcott was crucial to both Arsenal goals.
And I repeat, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. In something a bit new, I will deal with players a bit more in depth whenever possible, during the ratings.
Team: 6. Sorry, but you can’t play 2/3rds of a match. You have to play the whole match. Whether it was because you got tired, or bored, or were hungry or whatever, you let Arsenal back in the match. It went from done and dusted to in doubt, and it’s your own fault.
Guardiola: 5. You had them ready to play, but you let the side down with shitty selections. Keita shouldn’t have been in, with The Yaya instead, and Henry should have been subbed for Pedro!, not Ibrahimovic. He didn’t look tired, and I guarantee you he was plenty energized enough to continue being a threat. When he came off, Arsenal got a lot more confident. And you were outcoached. Wenger made the right substitutions. You didn’t.
Valdes: 7. Didn’t do much, but what he did was aces. He even guessed right on the first goal, but just had it slip under his outstretched body. Bummer. He and Almunia were, as I said, made to look good by having shots hit directly at them, but both keepers had redemption matches of a sort. I love the way that Valdes plays for us. Long live Highpockets!
Alves: 6. Too erratic for my tastes. He started out as Marauding Dani, charging up the pitch, playing excellent defense and making pass after pass to good places, passes that deserved better fates. Then suddenly, he began yielding acres of space on his side, and not doing much on offense. This was a team-wide malaise, however, but still. Attack after attack was started up his side of the pitch.
Pique: 7. Played his heart out, and just missed the slide that would have blocked the Walcott goal. A little more pace would have got him there. Excellent pass to Ibrahimovic, and he was in full Piquenbauer mode as he was the man bringing the ball out from the back. But he picked up an undeserved yellow, and will miss the home leg as will Puyol. Milito is a preferable choice to Puyol these days, form being what it is. But Pique’s absence raises the specter of Marquez. Uh, oh.
Puyol: 6. Key interventions and strong early play, but he went off the boil and began making positional errors that cost us, when he went to fireman mode. He simply has to line up and clear that pass in from Walcott. He’s blameless on the “penalty,” as that was an atrocious call that found him simply standing there. If Fabregas broke his leg on that play, it shows that fate doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He would have been out in the Camp Nou leg anyhow, though.
Maxwell: 4. It’s easy to play left back when you don’t have any pressure. But as soon as you got some, you caved. Walcott owned you, and your inability to figure out how to play him cost us dearly. If you are a player’s inferior, foul him as soon as he touches the ball. Do something other than back up, with your hands clasped behind your back. That just gives him space to play, and if you give a talented player space to play, he will kill you every time. Walcott did.
Busquets: 5. And you were doing so well, before going back to Bad Busi, with tentative, uncertain play and messy passing that killed us. Shame on you for that schoolboy giveaway. Not sure what you were thinking, but you clearly weren’t. Very good match up until that point, but it was your stupidity that gave a good side life. And then on the tying goal, you fouled Denilson but didn’t stop the ball. If you’re going to foul, stop the ball, or the official will allow play to continue. You know better.
Keita: 5. You should have been The Yaya, as you didn’t offer much in attack. Yes, you did some of the dirty work in taking fouls, policing the midfield and battling for possession. But I kept wondering how different things would have been with a grownup out there.
Xavi: 8. Holy cow, what a match. Even when they marked you, there was always a way out as you dictated the match’s pace and tempo. Unfortunately, your teammates let you down. You were also missing your partner in crime, Iniesta. And when Messi started playing more forward, that made the midfield a messier place for a thoroughbred such as yourself to do his thing. And it showed.
Pedro!: 3. You were pretty close to worthless. You are hardly ever where the ball is, so you’re always chasing it, running back and forth like a crazy person. You were where attacks went to die, as you either lost the ball with a heavy touch or offered up a shit cross that was easily dealt with by Arsenal’s defense. Running around with loads of energy doesn’t mean that you’re playing well.
Messi: 4. Your thousand-yard stare as you were coming off the pitch spoke volumes. What the hell, can’t you play when someone else is in the spotlight? You started off very well, being a key part of our first-half dominance, as you teamed with Xavi to control possession, and move forward into dangerous positions. Then you just went away, commencing an interminable period in which you were hardly any help at all to your side. It was Argentina NT Messi, and it’s too bad, because this was your match to take by the scruff of the neck. And you punked out.
Ibrahimovic: 7. Strong individual play, marked by lots of energy and all the right movement. Thankfully, you also showed what happens when the passer anticipates your movement, and releases the ball when they’re supposed to, without hesitation. On plays such as the two goals that you scored, there is no time for contemplation, because there is no other play. Often, we hesitate a beat before deciding to make the pass, always searching for a better option. The two passes that released you were fully committed, with dazzling results. Nice work.
Henry: 1. Except for the nice play that you made right as you came onto the pitch, you were pretty much a worthless substitution.
Milito: incomplete. Not enough time really, for you to do much except stare in open-mouthed astonishment that our skipper was sent off for that play.
And so instead of heading home with a massive, 2 away goal cushion, we look at next Tuesday’s home leg wondering how in the hell this one got away. I think we will do the business, particularly if Abidal is back in the side, because Wenger is going to once again run with Plan Walcott, in the hopes that they will steal an away goal or two. Messi has to show the hell up at home as well, but I am confident.
Unfortunately, we will have a difficult match on the weekend, in the form of Athletic Bilbao. Thankfully, we will have the advantage of home cooking.
And now ….