Before we start, I should probably preface this article by saying I’m going to be writing it in the style of the game itself. Which is to say, it will be overwhelmingly a Barca love in for the first 2/3rds before finally rallying to the Arsenal cause in the final stretch. So any over sensitive Gooners should probably skip to the end. You have been warned.
1. Settle down children, let the lesson begin – And so it came to pass; Two footballing heavy weights, two kindred spirits, two soul mate clubs eternally bound in philosophy met at the Emirates for a showcase match of aesthetic joy. The most beautiful game in the beautiful game. Or not. The build up to this match, or the Arca-Barca w*nkfest as I liked to call it, was nauseating in it’s hagiography, but seemed, at first at least, justified in it’s praise. Justified that is, because both sides do try and play what most deem “the right way”. They can never be faulted for that. But within the first 60 seconds, it became painfully clear just how futile any attempts to paint these two as brethren was, and for an hour, it must have been like a slow dagger through Arsene Wenger’s heart. Barca were the real deal on the holy field. Arsenal were mere pretenders. For 60 minutes or so it resembled a console football game between the playstation world champion and someone with no arms. The joke rolled off the tongue; “Arsenal are being out-Arsenal’d” but that was wrong. They were being out Barca’d. To even claim the home side had dominion over the “’ed” was an insult to their guests. For 60 minutes it wasn’t a football match, it was a lesson.
2. In England’s green and pleasant lands – That’s not to say that Arsenal didn’t show great resilience. They rallied themselves sterlingly in a manner befitting a proud English club, but that they did so in such a manner, and not in the swaggering swashbuckling continental way they are accustomed, spoke volumes. Arsenal’s comeback was a proud one, and shouldn’t just be tossed lightly aside, it came as quite a shock, and one our Gooner mates rightfully highlighted vitriolically after the fact. But the shock was not that Arsenal had managed to claw their way back, but in the manner in which they did it. An English manner. “Get about them a bit, get it up to the big fella, and then get the quick lad to run at ‘em”. For all Wenger’s assurances he would play his own game, he eventually had to concede his only option was the ugly one. And it worked.
3. Better Do Better – It must be said, before we drown in the sperm of a million people tugging themselves silly over the 60 minute makeover Arsenal received from their Catalan cousins, that this was the best Barca have played all year. It was them at their peak, not at their norm. Even Pep Guardiola has said those first 45 minutes are the best his side have managed under his tenure. It also must be said that Arsenal lost some crucial players very early on, and continued to do so throughout. Still, 71% possession away from home in the first half against England’s top possession keeping side is, well, staggering. That Arsenal go into the return only needing a win, and not an Everest of away goals, is a monumental feat in itself.
4. It’s (not) like rain, on you’re wedding day – The sound of 55 thousand Arsenal fans chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at the referee after Cesc Fabregas was carded near the end of the first half was quite amusing, and probably broke some ancient secret irony meter somewhere as their team were being shown exactly how to do it on their own park.
5. Zlat’s the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it – So often Zlatan Ibrahimovic has flattered to deceive. He had never scored against English opposition before last night and for 45 minutes was doing his best to remind us why. He missed from a yard out in the first 3 minutes, softly plopped 3 or 4 headers straight at Manuel Almunia from within the 6-yard box, and at one point hit a free kick into a car park somewhere behind the Holloway road. For most of the first half he contrived to do almost as much as the Spaniard in goal to prevent Barca going 6-0 up. He finally broke his duck though within 20 seconds of the restart, and then cooked and ate it with pancakes on the hour.
6. When two become one – One of the keys to Barca’s early domination was Sergio Busquets, whom I kept inexplicably wanting to call Sergio Biscuits, which I suppose would’ve allowed me to say he looked like a tasty player…or something. He constantly looked like he wanted it more than his opposite numbers in midfield and allowed the real creative star of the evening – Xavi (whom I similarly always want to call Chavy) – to control the field. The worlds most greatest ever player ever in the world ever, Lionel Messi, was in these men’s shadows all evening.
7. School’s out – The savior for Arsenal came in the shape of the much maligned, pirate bearded Theo Walcott. Whilst I could hardly claim to have been blown away by his performance (in essence he just ran at them, as he always does) his impact was palpable and the lesson ended in earnest as Arsenal’s kids got up from their desks to play at last. He cut inside expertly to bring the home side back in the tie, and his freshness and exuberance troubled Barca. It’s a given he’ll start the return, and with Puyol and Pique – Barca’s best defenders – missing, could, inexplicably, decide the tie. If he does transpire to be the difference, then it will finally be the big stage arrival promised from him since he was catapulted to stardom as an embryo. Oddly though, he claimed he thought the result “was about fair in the end” in his post match interview. So either he’d only paid attention once he was on the field, or he’d been watching Inter vs. CSKA in the dug out.
8. The Mad Hatter’s free party – Once Walcott was on, and had grabbed his goal, it all suddenly went completely cockamamie. Arsenal stepped up a gear, Barca looked rattled, Puyol fouled Fabregas without moving somehow, conceded a penalty and got sent off. Cesc converted in aggressive fashion in an almost Roy Keane-like “I don’t care if I’m suspended, I’m doing it for the team” captain style way, and then proceeded to injure himself doing so by over exerting himself. This meant the last 5 minutes were played out by 20 men, as Fabregas evened out Puyol’s red card by hobbling around like he’d been caught short for the remainder of the game. It was suddenly flung as wide open as Danielle Lloyd in the Spurs dressing room and even in the dying minutes both teams were going for a winner and although it hadn’t started as such, it ended in a truly open, flowing and excitingly even encounter. Just like it was always meant to.