WE CAME, WE PLAYED, WE WON!

Written by Californian Gooner

Very few people gave Arsenal a chance of advancing in the Champions League this season when we drew Barcelona back in December. But after 90 minutes of amazing football and an even more amazing 2-1 victory, the Arsenal will travel to Catalonia in three weeks time with more than a fighting change to send the hosts home. Most of us will approach that game with a great deal of optimism. For now, let’s just savor a fantastic game, a great night and a stunning victory against what may be one of the best club sides ever.

With such a wonderful game, one is tempted to just dispense with a review and tell you, dear reader: go watch the game again (assuming you didn’t miss it). And then watch it another time. It is some of the best football you are likely to see.  While other teams – the Chelsea or Inter— might have come to park the bus, this Arsenal team came to play, and came away victorious.

As the game started, I was filled with hope, but also trepidation. Fresh in many minds were the first 25 minutes of the same tie last year, which saw us virtually played off the park.  The first 10 minutes put those fears to rest. This was a different Arsenal team – one with much more confidence, much more aggression, and importantly, a full first choice line up (minus Sagna).  The rise and rise of Jack Wilshire also added something that was missing last year – another player who could keep the ball in a tight spot and move it on intelligently. Arsenal players were finding space and Van Persie came close after a beautiful dinked ball from Cesc set him free on Valdes’ right. Fear of Walcott may have also played a role as the Catalans played unusually deep, leaving us space in the midfield.

As the match continued, Barca began to tighten things up, stifling our attack and pinning us in our own end. An early run from Messi was ended by a very late Song tackle, and the later received  a fair, if slightly harsh, yellow card that signaled the beginning of a difficult night for our midfield enforcer.  The ref was calling things extremely tight and the Catalans began to play for the whistle a bit. A through ball to Messi saw him scamper through the middle, only to see his chip go wide. Credit to Szczesny, who made the shot difficult, hesitating a split second to go to ground and forcing Messi to adjust. Barcelona began to tighten the screws, but Arsenal’s attack looked dangerous each time we managed to break their midfield pressure. Around 23 minutes, quick work from Wilshire released Walcott who carried the ball up the middle of the pitch, releasing Cesc with an inch perfect pass on the right. As Valdes came out, Cesc opted to pass, rather than shoot, Abidal clearing with a desperate header just before Van Persie could get there.

Minutes later, Barcelona had scored. A seemingly innocuous run by Messi drew the defense in before he released Villa, who sprung the offsides trap and scored through Szczesny’s legs. From that point on, Barcelona dominated possession, smothering the Arsenal attack quickly. Still, while the Catalans no doubt dominated this long stretch of play, Arsenal looked dangerous when they were able to break the pressure, and it was clear that an equalizer was possible.

Everyone on the pitch and off it for that matter knew that Walcott would be our danger man, our main outlet. But it was the increasing confidence of another man – 19 year old Jack Wilshire—that really gave cause for hope, taking the ball in tight positions and time and time again breaking Barcelona’s pressure with a clever pass. As Barcelona’s spell of pressure subsided at the end of the first half, one was left with the feeling that the match could go in any direction; 2-0 or 3-0 for Barca or a comeback for Arsenal all seemed a distinctly possible. A victory for the Arsenal, at that point, felt a bit far-fetched.

Arsenal opened the second half with much the same intensity they had opened the game with. Wilshire in particular began to take possession of the midfield and Koscielny was growing in confidence, taking on Messi and Alves and Pedro and time and again, coming away with the ball.  At 69 minutes Wenger removed Alex Song, who had played much of the game on a yellow card, for Arsivin, and shifted Nasri back to midfield. A few minutes later, Bendtner would come on for Theo. This line-up was either going to score or lose 3-0, effectively eliminating us from the tie.

The goals, when they came, were stunning. RVP, who had previously shot errantly and tamely when he might have done better, was put to the corner of Barca’s  six yard box by a promising through ball off Gael Clichy’s right foot. While the obvious play was a cross to Bendtner, RVP found his balance and rocketed a shot through the narrow gap between Victor Valdes and his right post. 1-1. Game tied and The Emirates was rocking. My local pub in the suburbs of San Jose, California– equally divided between Barca and arsenal fans – was rocking as well. Cue baby crying… she is an Arsenal fan in training, so I can only assume those were happy tears. The response was a bit frightening!

The second came minutes later, as a Cesc pass set Nasri free down the right side. Unable to beat the defenders, Nasri slowed the play down and bought time, before shuffling a lovely low cross for the onrushing Arshavin to curl a sumptuously controlled shot into the lower right corner from 12 yards out. 2-1!

Seven minutes left, but in no way did this match seem to slow down. Brimming with adrenaline and confidence and cheered on by a raucous crowd, arsenal began pressing higher up the pitch. Clearly they could smell the fear in their opponents, and either they were going to take the ball and head in for more or Barca would some how come back and nick one. Despite some late jitters, arsenal was able to hold on for the victory.

I will leave the player ratings to others, but just mention a few standouts. Jack Wilshire (my MOTM) and Laurent Koscielny were excellent. Wilshire grew as the match progressed and actually outplayed Xavi and a somewhat anonymous Iniesta later in the match. Koscielny basically won every dual he entered – against Alves, against Pedro, and most impressively, against Messi. Eboue – a major worry for many fans—was good and got even better as the game progressed –confidently carrying the ball out of defense. Clichy was his normal, battling self – his pass to RVP was better than normal. Theo was ‘kept quiet’, but his influence should not be underestimated. Much of Barca’s defense was geared at stopping him, and that opened up space elsewhere. And Szczesny was immense.

Now that you have read this review, go back and watch that match again.

This is the second of two great match reports we received, to save confusion please return to the first post to leave comments click here


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