View From The Bank: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1
By the time the pre match montage of our finest European moments had aired and “The Wonder of You” faded from the PA to be replaced by the stirring Champions League theme, we knew we were in for a hell of a night.Trying to convey the nerves, the excitement, the tension, the fear and the pride that gripped the North Bank last night is no easy task, but as one major sports brand says; impossible is nothing. And so it proved last night.
Arsenal started far better than they had done last time these two sides met at the Emirates. Last season we were edgy and over awed. Five minutes in it was clear that wouldn’t be the case this time around. In all fairness, Barcelona were still immensely imposing. Their passing, as we would see throughout the game, was truly a sight to behold. Every single one of their players is comfortable with the control, pass, move ethic which has been the basis of their incredible success.
It was therefore heartening that Arsenal defended with conviction, and attacked with pace. Nasri and Walcott covered their full backs who tucked in to create a narrow formation when defending. This perhaps afforded Dani Alves more possession than many would have liked but it also limited the chance for Messi and Villa to breeze through gaps in the middle.
The first half was not quite as one sided as has been suggested. Barca took the lead through a swift move that caught Clichy a yard out of position and had a goal controversially disallowed. That said, Robin Van Persie failed to hit the target with a couple of decent chances and had a close range header denied by a last ditch defensive clearance.
Regardless of Barca’s brilliance, there was still a prevailing mood in the ground that we could take a positive result to Spain with us. This collective intent was perfectly shown by the fact that the often criticised Arsenal faithful were on their feet, imploring their side to respond, whilst David Villa was still celebrating the opener.
Despite being a goal down at the interval, we kept on. We kept on playing our way. Barcelona may have held possession for what seemed like interminable periods but, we were patient. We pressed hard and seized back possession when the odd pass in 100 was misplaced. Guardiola and Iniesta had spoken before the game of a respect for Arsenal. Nothing spoke of this respect more than their apparent satisfaction with a one goal lead. Withdrawing Villa for the defensive minded Keita and encouraging their full backs to entertain more caution showed that they had a genuine respect for our quality.
And so it proved. As the Catalonians looked to control possession, increasingly relying on the genius of Messi or Pedro for a second, Arsenal’s commitment to their style of play began to come good. When Villa departed for Keita Wenger’s response was instant and bold. Removing Song for Arshavin and dropping Nasri into a deeper midfield role allowed the home side to control the game. Clichy’s clever stabbed ball set Van Persie through where he lashed home his 12th goal in 10 from a near impossible angle. The goal was helped by the indecision displayed by Valdes who had one eye on Bendtner bearing down in the middle.
In the 83rd minute the ball broke from defence and the utterly astonishing Jack Wilshere opened the most beautiful left foot seen in an Arsenal shirt since his mentor Liam Brady to play in Cesc Fabregas. Our Captain in turn played a defence splitting pass to Samir Nasri whose vision and technique were such that he was able to spot Arshavin who stroked home what was by that time a deserved winner. Anyone surprised not to see the diminutive Russian celebrating with his usual “Sssssssssh” gesture would have been amused to see it was still there, only this time printed on a t-shirt underneath his raised number 23 jersey.
The North Bank erupted in a way I have never experienced before. At Highbury or The Emirates. Memories of home defeats to West Brom and Newcastle, of relinquished leads, were banished as total euphoria engulfed the ground.
I could go on and on about how good this feels. Finally seeing Arsenal begin to make good on the promise that I have so long believed was there gives a feeling of immense pride.
To see Jack Wilshere, who has convinced this blog that he is better than Cesc was at 19, stand out amongst the best midfielders in the world gives immense satisfaction. To see the previously maligned Laurent Koscielny make a series of tackles and interceptions which bred our own wave of attacks was incredibly fulfilling. To see Wojiech Szczesny make two or three saves that Peter Schmeichel would have been proud of was further justification of Wenger’s faith in his players and his way.
Yet, this game wasn’t about individuals but about a team who are finally beginning to make good on the promise they’ve so long held. Whether we can hang on to our lead in the Nou Camp is not a question for today. Just enjoy this moment. A day to be very proud to be a Gooner.