Well, there aren’t going to be any pictures because of the ongoing server complexities, which is just as well. I am absolutely disgusted with our club right now. Did we deserve this loss? It depends on who you ask. Barca fans will say that it could easily have been 4-0 going into the half, and the tie would have effectively been over. They will also say that Messi’s goal was unjustly disallowed. Whatever. Fact of the matter is that we had chance after chance to win this tie today, to make it all effectively academic.
But that didn’t happen for so many reasons, most notably because not everyone came to play tonight — three of the club’s most rock-solid, reliable players, let the side down. Then Guardiola made wrong-headed substitutions, underestimating an Arsenal side that some might have thought was punching against its weight, but they have been playing like that all season. And we didn’t just lose, we got whipped by and at our own game.
I know, I know, possession, passing, stats, whatever. Fact of the matter is that once again, the other club wanted it more than we did, and that disgusts me. As Guardiola has said time and again, we’re terrible without the ball. And almost every time we gave it to Arsenal, they did something with it. We faced a mirror image in a club that likes to press the ball, wants possession, plays a high line and is deadly off the break. And in the first part of the first half, they were all over us. Walcott was marauding up the left side, owning Maxwell in a way that many predicted, they were passing into space, pressing the ball, regaining possession and steaming off on the attack. You’d almost think they played like us, or something, but that can’t be, because all of the world’s press say that we have a patent on that kind of football. Perhaps we can sue Arsenal, to have the match results overturned for patent infringement.
Or perhaps not. Now, you’d think their assault would have sharpened our wits, and made us more ready to play. But you knew what kind of day it was going to be when Villa threaded a perfect through ball for Messi, who took, controlled, and flat-out missed a scoring chance that he usually turns in his sleep, a shot that drifted wide of the far post. The keeper did it all right, but Messi had him dead to rights. The best player in the world is supposed to turn those chances into goals. He just is.
On the up side, we got control of the match in a way that, if our attack wasn’t on vacation, would have had this match sewn up by the half. It was a beautiful display of possession, passing and movement as we pressed Arsenal into possession mistake after mistake. Maxwell put on his big boy bloomers and regained control of his side of the pitch, and we sprang into life. You could see that the machine was hitching and sputtering, but all it took was one pass, one shot, and Villa did the trick. If big players show up for big matches, Villa was Gulliver today, exploding into being right as I jotted in my notes, “Where the hell is Villa?” Oh. Never mind.
This was war in the midfield and on the flanks, a war that tilted back and forth in pitched battle. Maxwell got the better, then the worse of Walcott. Alves had acres of space, creating danger that only lacked willing players charging the Arsenal box. Think of the time and time again that Xavi, or Busquets, or Iniesta had to hold the ball because of a lack of attacking movement, then ask yourself how much this club wanted this tie. Then ask yourself how much Arsenal wanted it.
A great team isn’t great until it is defined by silver. Guardiola rolled out with his best available lineup, Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro (who loses his exclamation points) and Villa. It was a lineup that is usually good enough to beat most clubs in the world, and we were creating chances with abandon, chances that were left begging, mostly by an uncharacteristically dull Pedro.
Thankfully, Villa came to life with aggression and movement, tracking back on defense, anticipating free kicks to win back a header, and a goal that is typically Villa. Messi made a run at the defense, and six Arsenal players gave him their undivided attention, allowing Villa to break into space with a perfectly timed run and clinical finish. It was 0-1, and then we started squandering chances, acting as if Arsenal were Almeria or Racing, batting the ball around and playing like Barca.
But this was Arsenal, a team that, as I noted the other day, has so much to prove: that last year was a fluke, that Fabregas made the right decision by staying, that they are every bit as good a footballing side as we are. And on this day, they were absolutely right, finishing with the clinical quality that this stage and this tournament demanded. Hats off to them. And you know what else Arsenal did? Played like us in that they let us run ourselves down. We’ve all seen it before because we’ve done it, as an opponent nicks a goal, then starts pressing like crazy for the second one, and we just absorb the pressure with strong defensive plays and last-ditch defending. And when they’re good and tired, we put the knife in with late goals.
Ah, their goals. Both came off the break, and both were evidence of my aforementioned Alves Complexity. If your attacking right back gets caught up the pitch against a fast team, you’re probably going to be screwed. It happened against Gijon, and it happened here. Even worse, they were goals that came because once our best offensive player went off the pitch, Arsenal looked at an attack of The Three Ineffectives, and decided “Hell, they sure aren’t going to score. Let’s press harder.”
The first conceded goal was a comedy of lackadaisicalness, as Alves didn’t shut down Arshavin, then Clichy was allowed an uncontested pass to Van Persie who left Pique stuck in concrete, then beat Valdes to the near side in a goal that should never have happened. The keeper is supposed to be the last line of defense, to make things as difficult as possible for the attacker. Valdes gave Van Persie a hole, and he stuck the ball through it. Simple. What the hell he was thinking, I leave to greater minds than mine. Because Goalkeeping 101 is cover the near post. If he can curl a ball around you into the far corner, rock on. Hell of a goal. Valdes’ blunder was a killer, because it gave Arsenal hope, and seemed to take some juice out of our legs.
Their second goal was an almost complete breakdown that all began when Messi gave the ball away, and Arsenal sprung into action with an attack that flowed through the midfield, unimpeded directly into our box, where Fabregas found Arshavin with a pass that he spanked past a flat-footed Valdes. It became a comedy of errors when precious few people did what they were supposed to:
–Messi stood there and let them pass the ball around him.
–Where was Alves?
–Iniesta stopped in the box, instead of running to press.
–Xavi did a half-hearted lunge at the ball.
–Maxwell was done for pace, leading to a wide-open pass for Arshavin.
–Keita went out for coffee.
–Abidal got screwed because Pique didn’t seem to know what to do, so he drifted over to cover Van Persie, while Pique screened Valdes.
–Abidal guessed right, moved to Arshavin, then turned his body to the side, instead of facing the shot to block it.
–Pique decides that he needs to screen his keeper.
–Valdes decides that “Hey, I know that Pique will be there to block a shot, but I don’t believe it, so I’m going to drift right along with him.” So he was caught flat-footed when Arshavin hit the curled ball into the space just vacated by Valdes.
Team goal. Worse, it was the kind of team goal that we aren’t supposed to concede, because we are supposed to make the hustle plays, no matter what point in the match it is.
Shameful. Yes, they played an excellent match, never-say-die in their house. And we kept being surprised that they kept springing back to life, until it finally bit us in our smug, exhausted asses. We missed Puyol today, for so many reasons, not least of which is that he would have made the right decisions on both goals, and maybe, just maybe, have buttressed a flagging team with his indomitable fire.
Team: 5. Solid display that all fell apart at the end, thanks to young legs. We were tired and looked it, but things shouldn’t have gotten to that point. This is why you finish your chances. We were sharp in that first half, when we had the chance to end the tie. Then the second was a disaster.
Guardiola: 2. Outcoached. Villa looked fit and fine. More importantly, he was our best offensive player. To pull him for Keita struck me as absurd. But I’m sitting on a sofa throwing things at the wall, instead of coaching the best football club in the world. So what do I know, except when do we ever play not to lose? By putting in Keita, that looked to be the decision. Would Afellay and Mascherano have been better subsitutions? The former would have kept the offensive pressure on, and the latter would have been a midfield lion. But usually, so is Keita, right?
Valdes: 2. You made the simple stops, but when the club needed you to step up, it was two significant failures. Bad distribution also, and an unusually high number of balls that were just hoofed up the pitch. Was Valdes feeling the Arsenal pressure?
Alves: 4. Strong on the attack, but a right back also needs to be a defender. Our right side was Highway 101 to Arsenal, as both of their goals flowed through the acres of vacated space there. I’m also not a big fan of his uncertainty in the box. At some point, he needs to shoot the damned ball.
Pique: 5. Some excellent last-ditch defending, strong play and he won almost every header that came near him. Is it his fault that he’s slow? No. Blame genetics. But Van Persie owned him on the first goal, and he just stood there on the second. Center backs can’t be indecisive. Do something. With Puyol, we probably win 1-0.
Abidal: 8. He came to play today, and is my Man of the Match, with intervention after intervention after intervention, on both sidelines and in the center. He even started yelling at his fellow defenders, trying to impress upon them the urgency of the situation. But if you’re going to block the shot, block the shot. Don’t turn your body sideways. Take notes from Arsenal’s defenders.
Maxwell: 5. Not as bad as some might be alleging right now. Yes, Walcott was putting the wood to him early, on both ends of the pitch, then Maxwell came into his own, battling Walcott to a draw and even taking advantage of his slack positioning to go on the attack.
Busquets: 7. Omnipresent, and worked like a dog in trying to be a DM and deputize for a slack Iniesta, who was on walkabout for this one. So smart on and off the ball, but victimized by too much space for him to cover all by his lonesome.
Xavi: 6. Was getting the better of things, but again as at Gijon, hampered by a lack of movement from too many of his attackers. Xavi will kill you when you give him time on the ball, unless the attackers just stand there. Then he can be pressured, and that leads to back passes.
Iniesta: 3. We still haven’t had Iniesta against Arsenal. After a very bright start, his influence on the match was nil. His runs free up space for the other attackers, and work with Xavi to retain possession. But he was completely invisible for too much of the time.
Messi: 1. My nadir in a litany of horrors today, as he constantly made runs at multiple Arsenal defenders, displayed terrible touch and played a match that was so far below par, I was thinking “Maybe he’s sick, or injured.” Yes, lovely pass to Villa for the goal. The end.
Pedro: 1. Too cute with two finishes, one a side footer that was smothered, the other right into the keeper’s belly because he was uncharacteristically slow on the draw. And he returned to Headless Chicken mode. Terrible performance.
Villa: 7. After a sleepy beginning, he stormed into life. Brilliant movement that made the goal easy, and what a finish. He tracked back on defense, pressed and made life generally difficult for Arsenal attackers and defenders. So when he shows up, nobody else does?
Keita (for Villa): 2. Usually, he’s in the right place at the right time. But like almost everyone else, he was way off today. And where’s the athleticism that holds down the fort in the midfield? That’s why Guardiola put you in, to be the Malian Menace. So what happened?
Adriano (for Iniesta): incomplete. Not enough time, though he certainly had a hand in the goal, as did the entire side.
And now that I have done my job as a reviewer of this match, it’s time for the fan to weigh in. We nabbed a crucial away goal. If we win 1-0 at home, or any combo platter that has us a goal ahead, we go through to the next round, and will be looking back at this match as a bump in the road to potential silver. Arsenal won’t park the bus, which will work in our favor. Messi can’t be as bad as he was today. Neither can Iniesta.
Now, we don’t get much of a break running into the return leg which is, thankfully, at home. We’re away to Mallorca on 26 Feb., then away to Valencia on 2 March. We’re home to Zaragoza on 6 March, then Arsenal on the 8th. This is a savage stretch that begins with Bilbao this weekend, a 5-match stretch that could see us falter in the Liga and get bounced from the Champions League.
The cule in me says that neither one will happen. We don’t need a remuntada against Arsenal as much as a return of even a semblance of our form. I am confident that this will happen. Visca Barca!