Barca – Injury Gremlins – Out, Demons, Out!

If you’re like me you’re still recovering from Wednesday night’s epic against Barcelona at the Grove.
We’ve seen some good performances from visiting teams since we moved to the Grove, principally from Chelsea and Manchester United (unfortunately). Barcelona’s show of pass, move and pressing defence from the front was quite simply the best performance by a visiting team – domestic or foreign – against us since the visit of Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Cup in 1982/3. Having lost the first leg 3-2 in the Lenin (now Luzhniki) Stadium having been 2-0 up, the Soviets came to Highbury and gave us a football lesion in precision pass and move.
Playing at the very best level of the eastern European style first seen on these shores during the post Second World War Dynamo Moscow tour of Britain in 1945, Spartak played us off the park, winning 5-2 on the night and 8-4 on aggregate. Their performance won them a standing ovation at the end of the match. Quite right too. They were sensational.
Last Wednesday night we saw the best club team on the planet at the moment. If their finishing had matched their pass and move possession play we’d have been three or four down in the first twenty minutes. That we weren’t, and managed to get to half time the game still scoreless, credit must also go to Manuel Almunia who made a string of excellent saves. To be frank though, some of the chances he saved he should have been given no chance with. The saves still had to made though and Almunia made them.
We contributed to our own downfall by appearing like startled rabbits in the headlights. Every time Barça lost possession they demonstrated exactly the tactical qualities I’d blogged about, pressing the ball, closing us down and not allowing us to settle without ever losing their shape. They did to us what we’ve often done to our opponents domestically but at a tempo and technical and tactical level we can only hope to one day master.
Having ridden our luck, some less than stellar finishing and some good goalkeeping had kept us in it. But not for long. After the break Manual Almunia displayed the fallibilites we all know that he has, contributing to Barcelona’s first goal by coming off his line, leaving himself stranded in no-man’s land, vulnerable to the lob, which is exactly what Zlatan Ibrahimović produced. The fault wasn’t all Almunia’s – the back four must also take its share of the blame. Likewise for Barça’s second Ibrahimović ghosted past Alex Song, dropped back into central defence to replace William Gallas, carried off injured before half time.
At two-nil down against the best side on the planet we had to be worried about a real belting. This is where we have to give ourselves in the stands and the team some credit. Gradually we got more and more into it. The Gooner Nation did the players, the club and themselves proud by singing their hearts out for the lads, even in the first half when were really under the cosh and didn’t seem to be able to do anything right. Even two goals back, we kept on singing. Good. And it had the effect we all wanted. Theo Walcott, introduced for Samir Nasri (who was our best player of the game for me) was a constant thorn in the Catalans’ side, his searing pace really worrying them. He got his reward courtesy of a good Arsenal move with a goal which squirmed under Victor Valdes in the visitors’ goal. His only error of the evening but vital one.
Urged on by a wall of sound from the stands we equalised courtesy of a penalty conceded by Barça skipper Carlos Puyol. The penalty was correct, the subsequent dismissal of Puyol perhaps a little harsh. The spot kick was one of the few decisions that Swiss referee Massimo Busacca managed to get right on the night. His performance was awful. Let’s have it right, we weren’t two goals back due to him, but his incompetence was unacceptable at this level. I don’t buy the argument of some Gooners that a referee from Switzerland couldn’t possibly cope with this type of game. Some of the best referees I’ve ever seen have come from nations that aren’t football giants. The excellent Israeli referee Abraham Klein is one who comes to mind. He gave a series of excellent displays in the World Cup in Argentina in 1978. I remember particularly the Argentina v Italy game in the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. His iron will completely blocked out one of the most passionate, partisan crowds in the world.
It matters how good you are, not where you come from. I’ve noticed after the last couple of seasons that the general standard of officiating in the Champions League has dropped significantly. UEFA needs to address this issue before it endangers the credibility of the competition. There have also been a lot of complaints about the officials in the Europa League this season too.
So we’ll travel to Barcelona with SOME hope. That however now has to wait.
The continuing injury curse means that we’ll be without William Gallas and Cesc Fàbregas for the rest of the season and Andrey Arshavin for around three weeks. I’ve given up hoping that our luck is going to turn with injuries. They’ve cursed us for three seasons now. They’re far from the only factor influencing our relative lack of success but they’re a big one. Some Gooners have been critical of the decision to select Gallas and Fàbregas for Wednesday night. Cesc wasn’t close to fully fit and Gallas was always going to struggle after being out for so many week. I understand why some supporters are critical. Hindsight is a perfect science however. It was a gamble. It didn’t pay off. We need to move on. At this stage of the season we haven’t got time for navel contemplation.
On a closing note, a plug for an excellent blog on the BBC website on the Arsenal ownership issue by Matt Slater. Matt, along with David Conn at The Guardian is one of the few sports journalists who has got real handle on sports business and politics. He also assiduously researches his pieces, unlike all too many sports scribblers. There’s nothing really new in the piece but it stitches together the whole story and analyses the known facts very well.

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