As we moved into the final 15 minutes of Arsenal’s meeting with Barcelona on Wednesday night, Gunners fans were facing up to the reality that their Champions League aspirations were circling the drain.
After a bright start, Barcelona dominated possession and chances in a way that suggested the Spanish champions were keen to make a radical statement to those still believing football played in the English top flight is superior to that displayed in La Liga.
In truth, the 2-1 win over the Catalan giants is unlikely to be enough to secure progress, regardless of the landmark feel of the victory amongst those present at the Emirates. The football world has an extremely short memory, and the level of optimism with which Arsenal fans travelled to Spain last season after rescuing a similarly precarious situation, should not be forgotten when we dissect the permutations of this first leg.
Nevertheless, after witnessing that first half display at the Emirates by the Barcelona engine room, to come out of that first leg with a lead is remarkable.
Many of the plaudits in yesterday’s newspapers have surrounded the performance of Arsenal’s youngest gun, Jack Wilshere. Despite a paucity of big game, Champions League experience, the diminutive youth team product looked instantly at home in a game that pitted his wits against some of the finest passing talents in the sport.
Wilshere’s distribution and accuracy may not have matched the exemplary Xavi in terms of sheer numbers, but the manner in which he moved around the pitch, consummately picking the correct passes was a joy to behold. Equally enchanting, was the youngster’s display of inventiveness and initiative that has been missing from many Arsenal midfields of previous seasons. The package underlined his remarkable ability and went a long way to justifying the excitement that surrounds his growth.
If Wilshere’s performance against Denmark last week was promising, this display took the young midfielder to a different level, impressing amongst far more revered opponents than those he dealt with in Copenhagen last week.
Arsene Wenger made special mention of his young prodigy in his post-match press conference, hailing the display as “outstanding.” Whilst Wenger was reluctant to include Wilshere in his first team squad last season, any doubts of his status as a permanent fixture in the starting XI have been dispelled with this showing.
Arsenal have struggled to kick on from important results in the past – there have been several false dawns over the last four or five seasons, and this would represent another if they fail to convert this slim advantage into a major scalp.
There are lessons for Wilshere too. He only needs to look around at his captain, Cesc Fabregas and remember the Arsenal victory against AC Milan at this stage of the competition in 2008. Despite landing, what appeared a major breakthrough victory at the San Siro, Fabregas and his team mates showed a naivety in stumbling to defeat to Liverpool, before capitulating in the league – neither trophy has been close since. One swallow does not make a summer.
Wilshere is going to find the game at the Nou Camp like something he has never experienced before. Successful teams there have been able to stick men behind the ball and defend resolutely, whilst maintaining the ability to break with pace against what remains a fragile Barcelona defence.
The threat going forward is something that is beyond question, but there are major, major questions about Arsenal’s ability to hold off a ruthlessly efficient Barcelona for 90 minutes. We saw last season, that despite scoring an early goal, the Gunners made too many mistakes and were comprehensively beaten. Memories of the club’s last away game – the remarkable 4-4 draw with Newcastle, will do little to convince Wenger that his men can keep their illustrious opponents at bay.
When Arsenal do get possession in the return leg, Wilshere’s key assignment will be ball retention – something the North Londoners have really struggled with against this Barcelona side. This will be something the whole side must do well – an extended game of attack versus defence will only end one way.
Such was Wilshere’s level of performance and calmness under pressure this week, older and far more experienced players might just be knocking on his door for help and advice on completing the task.
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