Saturday, 19 February 2011

Arsenal 2 - Barcelona 1: The night we proved we are winners

Well it's been three days since I witnessed first hand the greatest match in club football I've ever seen and I've yet to come down from the high the result inflicted.

I suppose in a way that's why I've been missing from the blogosphere. I've found it hard to translate what I saw that night into words.

I've seen victories over Spurs, Manchester United and Liverpool on numerous occasions, but this was the greatest night of Arsenal football I've been there to see.

It had been a tricky Wednesday. At work, I couldn't concentrate on my job, thinking of the match was my every second thought. How would we compete against a side who had come to the Grove just 11 months earlier and put on a display which was comprehensively dominating.

Yes, we'd successfully fought back on that occasion to draw the match despite going two goals down but they played us off the park that March night - passing us into submission.

I was positive going to the match. I thought we could get a result. Our squad was injury free compared to the 2009/10 quarter final and we were on a good run of form. But I knew giving the Spaniards too much respect was our downfall in our previous encounter at the Grove, so that is something we couldn't afford to do again.

And this time we didn't. We had the better of the opening exchanges. Theo Walcott caused the Barca defence on the back foot with his direct running and we had a chance to score an early goal with Robin van Persie's volley from a Cesc Fabregas chip saved well by VĂ­ctor Valdes.

The Spaniards came back into the game and their possession and movement is something which is beautiful to watch. The way they switch play with ease and their ability to hold on to the ball enabling them to win games because of their dominance of the ball, was something Arsenal were going to have to overcome if they were going to win the game.

Arsenal had set up to play a high line and squeeze the play, allowing Barcelona room on the wings but not through the centre. This saw Daniel Alves getting plenty of time and room on the right to attack Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri, something some of the crowd in the north bank were getting agitated by. However allowing the Spaniards room on the flanks to cross the ball in was the right tactic.

They no longer have Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the focal point of their attack. So, Wenger had gambled that Clichy, Koscienly, Djourou and Eboue could deal with the ariel threat of the Spanish champions. It was a gamble which on the whole paid off.

Although there were opportunities when Lionel Messi exploited our high line runs through the defence, the Argentine attacker wasn't able to beat the outstanding Wojciceh Szczesny on two occasions, one of his chances going inches wide.

David Villa finally made the breakthrough on 26 minutes. Running on to a Messi pass, the Spaniard tucked the ball away through the legs of Szczesny.

The game had swung the away of the Spaniards, and after Alex Song was punished early on by the referee with a yellow card, he was walking a disciplinary tight rope for the remainder of the half. The Cameroon international guilty of a number of niggly fouls which broke up the Barca play but didn't get Arsenal on to the front foot.

Half time came and there was applause for both teams as they left the field. We had been treated to another Barcelona master class of  possession football but also seen that Arsenal have a threat at the break. Speaking with those around me at the break, I wasn't sure that we could come back into the match. But the positive was, we were only one goal behind.

As I took my seat for the second half, the atmosphere at the Grove was electric and Arsene Wenger's men made a positive start to the half with some good attacking football.

Arsenal were brighter. Whatever the manager had said at half time had worked. The midfield duo of Song and Wilshere provided the Gunners with a stable axis to base their football, with the Englishman proving to be Arsenal's bright spark. He was able to offer the same protection of the ball and an accurate pass whilst under pressure as two World Class winners on the pitch in Xavi and Iniesta.

This was the game where many Gooners realised what a talent we have in Wilshere and at the age of 19, he's only going to get better.

Pep Guardiola made the first substitution of the game bringing off Villa for Seydou Keita whilst at the same junction Wenger took off Song for Andrey Arshavin.

The Gunners taking off a more defensive player for an attacker with the Spanish champions doing the opposite.

Song had been guilty of giving away a lot of free kicks and it was only time before the referee would reach into his pocket for a second yellow card and send the midfielder off. However with the substitution, Wenger preempted this.

Minutes later Wenger added Nicklas Bendtner to the mix, coming on for Walcott.

These changes indicated that Wenger wanted to throw everything at the game and to get some sort of result from the match.

Arshavin exchanged passes with Clichy on the left before the left back played a hopeful ball with his right foot for Robin van Persie to run on to.

There didn't seem to be many options for the Dutchman but having looked up and seen Valdes off his line and expecting a cross, van Persie fired the ball inside the Barcelona near post to put Arsenal level.

Cue pandaemonium at the Grove. I don't think I've experienced such an outpouring of emotion among Gooners following us scoring a goal.

But drawing level gave us all belief. And rightly so, within five minutes Wenger's men were in the lead.

Arsenal's counter attacking had always caused Barca problems and this time it was Samir Nasri who broke on the right played in from a Fabregas pass.

The attacker took the ball to the edge of the box and waited for support. Van Persie had already headed towards the far post but Nasri picked out the run of Arshavin and the Russian's low drive hit the back of the net before Valdes had chance to react.

BOOM! 2-1 Arsenal. 

The Grove was rocking. There were hugs, kisses and high fives between Gooners. The Arsene Wenger gamble had paid off.

It is the best atmosphere I've ever experienced at the ground and the coming of age of the venue we now call home. It needed a big match with a big result to give it some history, now it has that.

We had a further chance to add to our lead when Bendtner got a break on the left but the strikers effort was stopped by Valdes at the near post.

At the end of the 90, the fourth official indicated three added minutes. Within 30 seconds there were whistles from the crowd, wanting the game to be over and for Arsenal to record a historic win.

And their prayers were answered when the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli blew up to signal the end of the game. Arsenal the victorious 2-1 winners.

All our players were outstanding, but special mention must go to Jack Wilshere, Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny.  All had outstanding games and individually played a part in us winning this game.

The statistics will show Barcelona had more of the ball and more passes completed, but all the history books will record is the result.

And what's more, Arsenal beat the Spanish champions at their own game.

This team have proved they can beat the Spaniards once. Lets do it again at the Camp Nou.

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