View From The Bank: Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1
Our challenge in the Champions League is over for another year. On one hand we’ve been beaten by the best side in the world. On the other, an incompetent referee, unable to keep a level head in the Camp Nou cauldron, destroyed the game as a contest.
I’m not arguing that the ref cost us this game. It was abundantly clear that Barca’s passing and pressing was incredible and that it would have been a mammoth task for us to get a result. This doesn’t excuse the fact that the ref showed zero awareness of the surroundings when he flashed a second yellow at Robin Van Persie. Maybe this indiscretion would have been easier to stomach had the Swiss ref adhered to the rule book as diligently when Barcelona players over stepped the mark.
Abidal raised his hand to Van Persie’s throat and Busquets threw in a sly clip. These incidents riled Van Perise and led to his first yellow. On top of that, the odious Alves lunged in from behind and claimed Nasri with a scissor challenge that was potentially far more detrimental to the game than our striker’s inability to hear the refs whistle over the whistles of 90,000 Barca fans. Yet, the Spanish champions escaped with no yellow cards and, so it turned out, a place in the Quarter Finals.
Massimo Bussaca’s display last night was poor but then again, so was UEFA’s decision to give him the stewardship of a game of this magnitude. A game in this arena should be refereed by a German Ref who’s used to taking charge of matches in the Allianz Arena or an Italian who regularly runs out at the San Siro. This occasion was just too big for a ref more at home in front of 12,000 fans.
As I’ve said already, when Van Persie departed so did our chance of getting anything out of the game. We were penned into our own half for most of the first period and offered little going forward. It seemed that every time we did get the ball we were over eager to break at pace. This meant our midfield had to switch from defence to attack in the blink of an eye. This tactic might have worked had Walcott’s pace been an outlet but, sadly, he was at home. What was called for was more composure in order to build an attack.
Still, we almost made it to half time at 0-0. Had that been the case we’d certainly have looked to grow into the game. Sadly, Cesc’s ill-advised back-heel conspired against that possibility as much as Van Persie’s dismissal. It was apparent that our Captain wasn’t fully fit (he will now miss the Old Trafford showdown having tweaked the hamstring again) and, as the game passed him by, he tried to do something to influence things. It backfired and left us with a mountain to climb.
Alongside Fabregas were the ponderous Diaby and Jack Wilshere who, again, stood out as the exceptional talent he is. Wilshere was hurried into the odd loose pass however, more often than not his distribution bore comparison to his opponents. Wilshere also has a fantastic appetite to for battle. He isn’t shy in a challenge and, although it’s perhaps old fashioned, it’s nice to see that he doesn’t mind standing up to opponents when he feels his team mates have been wronged.
There’s no need to go into tortuous detail and relive every moment. You’ll no doubt have been doing that all night and all morning. I woke up this morning in a cold sweat when I thought of Bendtner’s heavy touch which allowed Mascherano the chance to clip the ball off his toe. I have long supported Bendtner and will continue to do so however, he will never get a better chance to justify his own hype than the one he was offered last night.
People have already criticised Wenger for not having a go at Barca, but we had a first leg lead to protect and we saw what happened to Real Madrid when they tried to have a go at the Camp Nou! Wenger’s game plan was to get to half time at 0-0 and then hit them harder as they tired. Had Cesc not made his mistake and the ref had not kowtowed to Barca, the plan may well have paid off. We will never know.
A special mention also for Manuel Almunia. His body language still betrays a man who is no longer happy at the club however his performance last night was brave and professional.
So, we’re left with lots of ifs buts and maybes. What if Abidal had been sent off? If Szczesny hadn’t got injured? If the ref had any common sense? Our frustration will not be dampened by any suggestion that Barca were worthy winners. They are a fantastic team however, for a second year running, we’ve been denied the opportunity to compete with them on an even playing field and that is what rankles more than anything else. Last season we were beset with injury this year it was a star struck ref that means we don’t know for certain what might have been possible.