The immense hagiography and hyperbole flung indiscriminately at everything Barcelona do these days can, on occasion, go a little too far for me. In fact before the great battle of the Barsenal’s part II began I had to scrap a hyperbolic based drinking game in which the player drinks a shot every time a commentator gushes unnecessarily over something relatively straight forward they do, for fear of poisoning myself before the half was out. Though on reflection, death by Clive Tyldesley would certainly be a novel way to go.
Regardless of whether you think they’re the Ubermensch SuperTeam or not, it’s hard, nay almost impossible to deny that they’re the top team around. They are indeed the benchmark, and it’s up to everyone else to see where they measure, to which the answer is invariably – “somewhere below.”
How far below Arsenal measure is now a contentious matter of opinion. Last year Arsene Wenger’s men were crushed, horribly. If Barcelona were a Ferrari, then Arsenal was a man in a Ferrari jacket making brum brum noises in a layby.
This season however, the Gunners have dragged themselves manfully up the pecking order with a performance and result that clawed back most of the dignity and pride they lost being out Arsenaled by their spiritual older brothers last season. I say most, because although my first inclination was to shower praise on the team for their dogged, hard fought victory, it seems that the world and his wife have gotten there first, and then gone overboard, and then some. In fact in all the sunshine rhetoric and glowing praise, it’s become easy to forget Barcelona’s very healthy position, and performance.
It started – as most things of an absurd nature often do – on ITV. No sooner had the sweat dried on Cesc Fabregas’ pirate beard than he was being asked, “If Barcelona are the greatest team ever, where does this result put Arsenal?” To be fair to the mercurial Spaniard he answered this question with the correct amount of confused distain and annoyance, reiterating that they still had another match to go and had “only played 45 minutes” which served as both a fitting analogy for the tie, and an accurate appraisal of his performance. Unbowed by that however, the microphone was then thrust into Pep Guardiola’s startled face to enquire as to whether he’d “lost to the better team” which seemed an odd question to ask a man whose team had just enjoyed over 60% of possession and 75 minutes of relative comfort away from home. But then the only real revelation from this was that ITV employ one more person who can’t be trusted with a live football broadcast.
However obvious and inevitable the subsequent praise, it still strikes me as odd that such a win be treated with such reverence. Arsenal are not a small team, in fact they could reasonably claim to be the 4th best team in Europe at present, so it almost seems patronising to elevate this victory – which owed at least a small debt to fortune – to the pantheon of club legend purely on the basis they won it. This wasn’t Norwich beating Bayern, this was Arsenal, a team who reached the final of this competition only five years ago. Likewise Barcelona aren’t actually the impervious indestructible Gods of grass the more over-excited footballistas often present. They’re often quite poor – by their standards – away from home in Europe. They were beaten by a greater margin last seaon when faced with Mourinho’s Inter and considered by many to have ‘robbed’ Chelsea the season before. Put bluntly, I expect Arsenal to get this type of result in their home ties, and what’s more, before last season’s match up, so did most Arsenal fans. It was indeed a euphoric and hard fought victory (and one they deserve to revel in) but it wasn’t really a fantastic performance. Beating Inter 5-1 at the San Siro or Madrid at the Bernabeu were great performances and great results. Taking a one goal lead into the second leg after being mostly outplayed is not.
Despite Sky Sports News doing their best to ramp the hyperbole to cranking levels all day Thursday, only the most optimistic and red tinted Gooner could genuinely claim to rank this as “one of the best performances under Arsene Wenger,” as someone from Sky’s indistinguishable conveyor belt of blonde haired women and bland looking men spent the whole day implying through a plethora of texts and emails. Even up until the minute of Arshavin’s winner the game seemed largely like a rescue job. For the first 45 Arsenal were practically knickerless as the Barca passing beast loomed threateningly down on them. They were lucky to escape a 2-0 deficit thanks to a bad offside call on Messi, and for the majority of the game looked far more the jacketed layby man of last year than the revving engine they finished as.
But they rallied, and kept fighting and their performance was great in one crucial aspect they’ve notoriously lacked in years gone by – bottle. Well two in fact, because Jack Wilshere was exceptional for a 19 year old playing at this level against the best team around. So rattled did Barca look in those last 10 minutes that Arsenal may well have gotten a third. But those 10-20 minutes were the only time in which the performance could seriously be called “great” and it seems unfair to a man of such achievements as Arsene Wenger to claim it amongst his best. In fact where Arsenal truly suceded in those closing stages was in besting their opponents for pace and directness, rather than “playing them at their own game” and coming off second best.
A draw would’ve probably been fairer but no one can begrudge Arsenal their moment of glory basking, especially after last year and with a hard task yet ahead. But if Wenger and Arsenal fans really value progressing in the tournament, they’re gonna need an even better performance than that at the Camp Nou. Barcelona are still the kings of the castle, and the next stop is the castle itself.
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