This was the kind of match that it was for a while, a match that is a little bittersweet for this reviewer, because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I am giddy with rapture that we dispatched a gutty, gritty Arsenal side, who got in our face for that entire first half, before the match got a bit (okay, a lot) chippy.
But the Van Persie call was wrong, stupid and completely changed the match. It wasn’t how I wanted to win, because now we dispatch another English opponent, and the cries of “Ovrebo again!” will ring from the heavens, rightly or wrongly.
For those who have never been to the Camp Nou, let me tell you: With 95,000+ fans in full cry, you couldn’t hear a bomb go off in that place, much less a whistle. So when Van Persie was ajudged to have transgressed the (very literally intepreted) rules and sent off with a second yellow, it wasn’t how I wanted it to end.
Make no mistake, we were the better side. By light years. Zero shots on goal? Is that playing to win? No. Mind you, we had a little something to do with that.
Usually before he is about to have a big match, Messi has the “Godfather” stare. This match, every player on the side had it, and you just knew that it was going to be one of those matches of the kind where we display our absolute best, and we did. Part of why Arsenal didn’t have any shots on goal is because we didn’t let them have the ball with a moment’s peace. If someone can recall a match in which our pressure was as relentless, I await the information, because I just can’t recall us ever pressing like we did, for as long as we did.
Yes, we did for some of the match at the Emirates, but not enough of it, and not as intensely. For this match, the lineup of Valdes, Alves, Busquets, Abidal, Adriano, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!!, Villa pressed like crazy men for every moment of the match, refusing to allow Arsenal any time on the ball. Every time they got the ball, pressure forced it loose, and we were coming back at them, with Attack of the Waterbugs, aka Midget Wars!
And the chances were coming, because Arsenal, frankly, were playing like a bottom-table Liga side who came in the Camp Nou and decided to play for a draw from the moment they stepped off the bus. Yes, if they could hold us scoreless, they would advance. You can see the logic in that approach, but Arsene Wenger’s charges deserved better. If you are going to go out of Europe, don’t go out with no shots on goal, your only goal being a lucky own goal off a deflected Busquets header. We had 47 touches in the Arsenal box. They had 2 in ours. In the Camp Nou, 10 men behind the ball will only get you beaten, as it should. Play football, or go home, because the Footy Gods don’t like when excellent footballing sides play not to concede.
What that means is that you are saying that you are facing a much better side, and are just going to turn turtle, and kick every ball away that you can. And for a while it worked, as Arsenal took a relentlessly physical and aggressive approach, relying on team speed and positioning to keep us away. Even still, there were signs. A sloppy Villa first touch led to one goal spurned. Pedro!! had another chance that went a-begging, as he was in full tasmanian devil mode, terrorizing Arsenal’s back line with his constant motion.
You knew what kind of a match it was going to be for Arsenal, when Alves spanked a bullet of a free kick that their keeper caught wrong, and did some damage to his hand. The shot looked hard, but harmless enough. Nonetheless, it was time for Almunia to come on, a substitution that also took away one of their three potentially match-changing subs. And still, we came running at them, like pit bulls unleashed until finally, a neat series of close touches found Messi scurrying in the box, only to run afoul of Diaby. The referee didn’t blow for the penalty, or any foul at all, and I will say it here: He blew the call.
Again, as with the Chelsea match and the penalties that could have been awarded to us in that one, Arsenal fans will choose to forget about this one. But it was a stone-cold penalty. And still, we played on, assaulting their box like a team playing for its European life, which is what we were. Usually, we’re the team who is playing a determined, froth-mouthed opponent, but not today. Today, we were the rabid dogs, and Arsenal the brilliant defenders who always seemed to get a leg or a foot in just the right spot. Villa broke loose for a one-on-one, but the defender got just enough pressure to force a weak shot. Chance after chance, and nothing concrete came of it, in a match that needed a goal to heat it up.
“This is a vital time for Arsenal,” said the Fox Soccer announcer as the first half headed into injury time, and so it was. If they could just get to the half without conceding, catch their breath and make it into the locker room at 0-0, there would be a chance. They even broke loose with a long ball for Van Persie, but it was Abidal he was against, not Pique. So rather than being able to outrun the attacker, Abidal was there in plenty of time to make the play, even though Van Persie was awarded an unfathomable corner kick.
And then, the “vital time” became crazy time, as a moment of individual brilliance so absolutely stunning as to beggar description, happened. Of course, it took a moment of incalculable stupidity to facilitate this, but that is so often the case. Cesc Fabregas tried a backheel pass on the lip of his own box, against a club that was pressing like crazy, even more so at the end of the half. It was intercepted as it should have been, and Iniesta played an exquisite ball that split two Arsenal defenders, who looked at each other the way noncommunicative doubles partners watch a ball slide between them for a winner.
Then Messi took over, as he controlled the pass, noticed a sliding Almunia charging at him, and chipped the ball up to himself so that the keeper slid under his self-pass, then Messi volleyed it home. Sitting on the sofa, I just smacked my forehead in astonishment. Goals such as that one are just stupid.
So many things have to happen for that goal to come, but more importantly, you need to have the best player on the planet playing for you, a player who thinks that everything is possible and nothing is absurd, even a pass to yourself in front of the opponent’s goal. Why not? It works in practice, what makes a match, even a Champions League elimination match, any different? Good question, and this goal was the answer. The question also summed up the match.
Our system works when everyone makes the right decision with the ball. When an attack starts from the keeper and inches its way up the pitch, any single wrong decision with the ball can result in an attack derailed or worse, a jailbreak counter of the type that killed us at the Emirates. But not today. Today, it was our ball and our pitch. We couldn’t take it and go home, because we were home. So we just took it, forcing Arsenal to resort to long clearances and passes, in an effort to get players behind our pushed-up back line, a back line that was very different, in that there was pace at every position. So we just intercepted, fed to Xavi and resumed the attack.
Arsenal played hard, physical and fair, forcing the best from us, thinking that surely, we can’t be that brilliant for an entire match. We were. From top to bottom, everyone made the right decisions with the ball almost every time. And if we do that, we are going to win. Period.
More importantly, that goal should have been the goal that opened up the match, that forced Arsenal to come out and play football. That was when you got some sense of how well we were playing, how hard we were working and how much we were pressing. Arsenal had to score, and we still didn’t let them have the ball, until Nasri bulled his way up the wing, earning a corner kick. In it went, and with no Arsenal players around it really, you expected a routine clearance. So when Busquets’ deflected header suddenly nestled into the back of our net, the Camp Nou was indescribably quiet. It was 1-1, and if the match stayed the same, Arsenal were through on the away goals rule.
And then, The Call. Van Persie was sent off on the attack off a long ball, but he was clearly offsides. It wasn’t even close. He took the pass, and fired a shot that went wide of the goal, whereupon referee Massimo Busacca pulled a second yellow, and Van Persie was gone. Yes, it was a stupid call. But we should never forget that if he had kept his head in the first half instead of deciding to, in a fit of Pique, show Alves what for, that would have been his first yellow. Game still on.
Yes, the call was terrible. So was the blown Messi penalty. Even steven? Players make their own luck, by remaining calm when all around them is going nuts. Van Persie didn’t, and that was that. So Arsenal fans can scream about the injustice of it all as much as they like, but if Busacca is as sharp as they would have liked, the match would have been 2-1 at that point, rather than 1-1. Were I an Arsenal fan, I would be directing my outrage at a coach who decided to keep us from scoring, rather than doing what we do, which is to play defense by attacking and keeping the ball, scoring goals so that you can’t score any. It worked, and we move on.
But back to the match, one in which a red card gave a Camp Nou opponent defending a lead in the tie, carte blanche to defend like crazy. But Arsenal isn’t Inter, and we are a much better side this season, as evinced by our second goal, one even more amazing than the Messi goal because it was a team effort that culminated in Iniesta sliding past Rosicky, our secret weapon in the Arsenal side, popping a pass to Villa who one-timed it perfectly for Xavi, who knocked it home for the 2-1 lead.
At this point, the possibility of extra time was strong if you were an Arsenal fan, but not if you were a Barca fan, as more goals seemed as inevitable as the sunrise, as we used the full width of the pitch to attack, attack, attack, attack. And suddenly, we were in their box again, where Xavi fed yet another flawless ball to Pedro!!, who was tripped up. Penalty. Messi smacked home for the 3-1 lead. It was a goal made of hard work, as Pedro!! never stopped running. He’s probably running right now, arms flailing, up and down La Rambla, making pickpockets drop wallets and forcing those EUR2 per can of warm beer vendors to give up their Damm cans.
Arsenal had no answer for an on-form Pedro!!, who when he is on form, works harder than any player on the pitch and is constantly looking for the ball. If he isn’t tripped up, he runs onto the ball and blasts it past Almunia, so why not take the chance on the penalty?
At 3-1 it should have been game over, but Adriano gifted a loose, soft, sloppy pass to Arsenal, who sent Bendtner off to the races. We can thank our stars for his sloppy first touch and an amazing intervention from Mascherano, who toe poked the ball to Valdes, who cradled it, and that was that. We advanced in the kind of at time heart-stoppingly beautiful match that only we can play. We were playing monkey in the middle, and the Arsenal defenders were the monkeys, in a passing display that was stunning. Our display will be sullied by the howls of outrage, but so be it. Fact of the matter is that the better side won. If you don’t shoot at the other team’s goal, you can’t win. Simple as that.
So what were the differences in this match, and the one at the Emirates? Iniesta and Pedro!! played much better, Mascherano, and the decision to start Adriano. The difference that he made can’t be stressed enough. And ah, the aka part of the title: We were the best club. A poor decision gives people reason to doubt that, which is wrong as can be.
Team: 10. This was, for me, a performance even better than the Clasic’s manita, because there was more on the line, against a higher-quality opponent. The pressing and energy were insane, and everybody helped everyone else. I have never seen Villa play as much defense as he did today, in just one example.
Guardiola: 10. He continues to make the right calls. Adriano and Mascherano proved him right, and the Afellay substitution was perfect. The side was ready to play, with none of that easing into the match nonsense.
Valdes: incomplete. I know, I know. But he didn’t have anything to do today. One of the rare chances that he had to touch the ball came when he was picking it out of his own net after Busquets screwed the pooch. Crazy I know, but there it is.
Alves: 10. Nothing like a refreshed, rejuvenated Alves, is there? He was everywhere on offense and defense, stealing, attacking, passing, even goading Van Persie into his stupid, stupid yellow card. He owned whoever Arsenal put against him, and even threw in an early hard foul, to say “If you want to play physical, that’s cool. We can do that as well.”
Busquets: 8. Played an extraordinary match, until that unconscionable error, a Bad Busi! moment from hell. Never stretch for a header in your own box, because you never know what can happen. Full-on monster other than that, in moving up to contribute to the attack then somehow getting back to ensure that nothing Arsenal tried could come to fruition.
Abidal: 9. Again, our French Greyhound proved his mettle at center back, with interceptions, outrunning Arsenal players to everything that came near him, bring the ball up on the attack to destabilize their defense and going out for coffee.
Adriano: 8. I find it rather difficult to imagine how Maxwell must have felt watching this display. He was a left-sided Alves, something we haven’t had in some time, charging up the pitch on slashing runs into their box, intercepting balls in our end and stealing passes in midfield. Except for a couple of positional errors and that silly, silly pass that could have changed everything, an utterly convincing match.
Mascherano: 9. Except for a few wayward passes, a perfect match, and that last intervention was the icing on the cake. He saved that tie for us with that play that showed his pace, determination and sheer effort. His passes were short and sharp, and he took everything that came near him in the midfield (yet again), underscoring that he should have been in the side at the Emirates. He allowed Alves and Adriano to go hog wild, because he had the middle on lockdown.
Xavi: 9. Command and control, and what a beautifully taken goal. Soft on some passes, and missed some runners, moments that elicited groans from the Camp Nou crowd. But our possession game thrives when he is as sharp as he was today, as the orchestrator of our massive game of Monkey in the Middle.
Iniesta: 9. Someone noted before the match that he and Pedro!! would be our two most influential players, that if they both played well, we were going to win. Ghostface was a killer, with passing, movement and aggression on both sides of the ball. A lovely, lovely dance partner for Xavi.
Messi: 10. What is there to say about our Man of the Match? He has scored more goals, and had more spectacular games, but he has rarely been more influential. He battled for everything. Not some of the things. Everything. He fought for balls, worked them loose, made runs, made passes and drove Arsenal’s defense crazy with his aggression. And man, what is there to say about that goal.
Pedro!!: 8. He earned his second exclamation point back, with an all-pitch display that had him in my thoughts as MOTM. Defense, offense, passing, runs, more defense, possession, he did everything including earning a penalty to put the tie to bed. A remarkable, indefatigable display from a player who is rounding back into form at the right time.
Villa: 7. Errant passes, poor touches and indecision were made up for with that perfect one-time pass for Xavi, a series of other brilliant runs, all-pitch effort and putting out for the colors in a way that made him part of this team’s heart and soul. Usually, you find him playing kind of detatched, even when playing well. Not today. Who was that dude bodying up on an Arsenal attacker? David Villa. Then making passes and runs at the other end.
Afellay (for Villa): incomplete. Not enough time for a real rating, but again, Guardiola showed that he learns from his errors. Afellay was an immediate danger, running onto a killer ball from Adriano to threaten, and then making run after run as well as facilitation our possession game.
Keita (for Mascherano): incomplete. The announcers called it a time-wasting sub, but Mascherano was hobbling after having given his absolute all in stopping that Bendtner attack.
And now, the next round. When Abidal was asked who he’d like to face, he said “Lyon.” Yes, this would not only mean an easy way to the next round for us, but that EE would have been knocked out of the tournament. Who knows? But right now, we get to bask in the glow of a job well done. And hats off to the folks who predicted the 3-1 scoreline.
As for Fabregas, I felt a little sorry for him as the Camp Nou denizens whistled him off the field. He didn’t play in last year’s Arsenal elimination, and he didn’t really play in this one, either. I won’t re-start the row about whether he should come or not. But I think that the display that we put on almost certainly had him thinking.