Down And Out In Catalonia

It was George Orwell who wrote: “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out.” Was that the feeling of Arsenal fans last night, who heard the final whistle in the Nou Camp and eventually could rest, trouble-free of that unstoppable machine, Leo Messi?
The saddest part of all was having kept the belief bounding forward for so long, only for it to be completely killed off when Messi sent the ball through Manuel Almunia’s legs for Barcelona’s fourth. At this moment, my head could finally be heard as the drumming of my heart reverted back to a slow, quiet beat.
I suspect the same had been the problem for many Arsenal fans, that the heart was big and drowned out the common sense which tried to tell us that there was no way Wenger’s team could surpass Barcelona. Arsenal had looked ordinary on their own playing field just a week before and in hindsight beating Barcelona in their back yard was near impossible.
Ok, so Rubin Kazan had triumphed over the Catalans earlier in the season during the group stage. With room to manoeuvre and with time to pick up points Barcelona could afford a slip up. This wasn’t to be the case at the quarter-final stage as Pep Guardiola’s team knew it was business time.
There were minor hiccups – letting Arsenal back into the tie at the Emirates and allowing them to take the lead at the Nou Camp – but overall they out-pitched their rivals like a New York ad man, winning the contract of a semi-final showdown with Inter Milan while Arsenal were left to kick their heels and wonder where it all went wrong.
In a way it was the difference between the two sides. I had seen Barcelona treat the game as a job, as their professional trade, and in contrast Arsenal seemed to handle their work as a game. The quickly taken free-kick by Messi which put Sergio Busquets through on goal while Arsenal had their backs turned was the pin-stripe on their businessman’s suit, and the cutting edge between the two.
Did Arsenal really try their hardest? Certainly they had started brightly. Despite Barcelona’s glorious retention of the ball Arsenal had managed to press well, and for want of a better pass from Abou Diaby on a counter-attack, and a little more luck with an offside decision that wrongly went against Nicklas Bendtner, Arsenal may have found themselves two goals up.
Sadly though, Arsenal were down and out before the game began. How much could be gained with five of the squads best players out injured? Samir Nasri was the final heartbeat worth placing in Wenger’s top bracket of players, just about the only one who could have swapped the red and white for blue and maroon and still have blended in.
Overall, the body language and tempo suggested Arsenal were perhaps going through the motions. Thomas Rosicky’s dejected looks of defeat every time the ball squirmed away from him said it all, and the sight of Gael Clichy doing everything he could to prod the team into life was like watching a young boy attempt to put out a house-fire fire with just one tiny bucket.
But who am I to judge about trying hard? My lazy ways were the reason I never made it to the Nou Camp in the first place, when I couldn’t be bothered to check the pockets of my jeans before tossing them into the washing machine and sealing the watery fate of my passport.
My ticket was given up and I resorted to sitting on the dusty couch wearing the same old un-ironed t-shirt. It’s when combining these melancholy moments with watching greats like Messi, that my existence on this earth shoots down to the importance of your common garden slug.
What is it that drives people like Messi? It doesn’t matter if you are a celebrated political activist, a famous spiritual leader, the best Hollywood actor of all time, or the world’s greatest footballer, because there is a common force behind them all that ordinary people like me can’t comprehend, and probably never will.
Messi may have ended their fantasy, but at the same time his 90 minute tutorial on how to be the best was Arsenal’s opportunity to learn something. Messi isn’t just talented, he is hungry to achieve what he wants. It’s so influential that the Arsenal players last night shouldn’t forget it, and probably never will. Hopefully the lesson has come just in time to help them win the league.
So where do Arsenal stand right now? A friend said to me that at this point in the season Arsenal should be at their peak, but instead he compared them to a plane falling apart as it makes way for landing, with the injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Andrey Arshavin and William Gallas like horrifically watching the engine, nose, wing and tail fall from the sky of this burning jet.
But I remember Arsenal being eliminated from the Champions League QF in 2004 by a soul-destroying Wayne Bridge goal, and that hurt more than last nights defeat. In the following league game, The Gunners came back dramatically against Liverpool to win 4-2 and then be crowned league champions at White Hart Lane during April. We can’t make history repeat itself exactly but we can mirror it somewhat by beating Spurs once again on Wednesday.

 George Orwell may have been one of the greyest pessimists going, but he also said: “Myths which are believed in tend to become true.” He also said: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” I like to think of that face as Harry Redknapp and to keep thinking something good can still come of this season. The Champions League is for wimps anyway, it’s the Premiership we want, so please, roll on NLD.
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