After a wonderful night for Arsenal and the fans at the Emirates Stadium, the time had come to finish what is possibly the most difficult job in World football and beat Barcelona over two legs. Many of the signs pre-game were encouraging for Arsenal: Carles Puyol ruled out through injury and Gerard Piqué suspended, meaning a makeshift centre-back pairing of Sergio Busquets and Eric Abidal was used. Add to this the return of Cesc Fàbregas and the shock return of Robin van Persie - just 7 days after being ruled out for “at least 3 weeks.” It was looking positive for the visitors.
This was until kick off, when the bombardment commenced. Barcelona pegged Arsenal into their own half for almost the whole half. The home side retained the ball and gave Arsenal no opportunity to gain flow. 18 minutes in, Laurent Koscielny who, on the whole, had a very strong game, received a yellow card for a poor tackle on Pedro around 30 yards from goal. Daniel Alves struck a firm shot but as Wojciech Szczeny caught the ball low, he dislocated his finger and was forced to leave the field of play, with Manuel Almunia arriving as his replacement. Almunia had not so far had a season he would want to write home about. After conceding a penalty and being at fault for two very soft goals in Arsenal’s embarrassing 3-2 home loss to West Bromwich Albion, he had been mysteriously injured and replaced as first choice by Lukasz Fabianski. When the Pole got a shoulder injury, No1 goalkeeping duties were passed on to Szczesny, meaning the Spaniard had dropped to third choice, despite starting the season as first. He came on as a man with a huge point to prove.
After the delay, play continued much as it had before Szczesny’s injury, with the Catalans dominating play as per their usual style. They came close when Adriano sent a cross deep into the Arsenal box but there was no one there to meet it. Then came a very threatening attack, from the feet of Leo Messi. He dribbled towards the Arsenal box and knocked the ball forward to Xavi Hernandez. As Xavi burst into the 18-yard box, Johan Djourou performed an inch-perfect tackle to deny him before Pedro curled the rebound over the bar. There was a sense that it really a case of when, not if, for Barcelona’s opening goal. They came close again when Adriano smashed an effort against the post. Then Arsenal’s resistance broke, and it was their Captain who was at fault. After clearing the ball from the box, rather than clearing the ball completely, he elected to backheel the ball towards Jack Wilshere, but Andrès Iniesta picked up the ball and sent a pass through to Messi and the Argentine delicately chipped the ball over Almunia before knocking the ball into the net.
But a few minutes before the goal, Jack Wilshere went over clutching his leg upon a tackle. A minor scuffle ensued. It was a small incident which would have bypassed the match reports of many but in said melée, Adriano could be seen with his hands around the neck of Samir Nasri - as could Victor Valdes moments later - all the while Eric Abidal could also be seen doing the same to Robin van Persie. By the laws of the game, should all three not have been dismissed? The disagreement passed and play continued. A minute later, van Persie touched Dani Alves’s face and the Brazilian went down like he had been shot. Though it was soft, the Dutchman should have known better than to raise his arms at an opposition player and rightfully received a booking. The Arsenal striker accepted his booking and moved on, but would three Barcelona players (Adriano, Valdes and Abidal) raising their own arms to Arsenal players not be entitled to some form of punishment, by law?
As the half time whistle blew, Barcelona were by far the happier side, but with one goal, Arsenal could go through. The momentum lay with the hosts, but Arsenal showed in the first leg that they were more than capable of springing a surprise. The second half promised an interesting story. Arsenal needed a goal and Barcelona would need at least another to be assured of qualification.
Though Barcelona continued their possession domination in the second half, there was a more threatening heir about Arsenal on the counter attack. On 53 minutes, Nasri embarked on a mazy run past three Barcelona defenders and won Arsenal a corner. One area in which Arsenal did have the upper hand over their hosts was height. With van Persie, Diaby, Koscielny and Djourou all 6” plus aerial threats, perhaps this was the Londoners’ route back into the game. As it transpired, it would be just that, only it would be an own goal by Sergio Busquets that brought Arsenal level. Poor defending, but none of the Arsenal team cared - they were leading the tie again and thoughts of the first leg re-emerged: backs to the wall for much of the game, but two quickfire goals later, they reigned victorious. Arsenal dared to dream once more.
Arsenal sprung a counter attack. Fàbregas, on the right hand side, sent a high ball to van Persie. The Dutchman controlled the ball with his left foot and then sent a poor right footed effort wide of Valdes’s near post. As he turned around, he saw the linesman with his flag raised and any onlooker could see the surprise on his face to see the flag. Then that look of surprise transformed into one of pure astonishment and bewilderment as Massimo Busacca reached into his pocket to give van Persie his second yellow card. Busacca appeared to think that the Arsenal forward had either kicked the ball away or he was timewasting. Just watching van Persie showed that he was making a genuine attempt on goal, so the only option that was left for which the Swiss referee could charge him was timewasting. Between the blowing of the whistle and van Persie’s shot, there was a delay of one second. Was he timewasting? Clearly not, or at least doing a shocking job in doing so. This was possibly the worst refereeing decision of the past decade when all factors are taken into account: the two counts on which van Persie could be charged were both invalid; the spectacle of the match was entirely ruined and the Dutchman was essentially being sent off for not being able to hear a whistle in a stadium of 98,000 people. What makes it different from many other poor refereeing decisions was the lack of common sense involved. Any referee can miss a bad tackle or an offside or by fooled by a diving player because they are human. They cannot guarantee seeing all and adjudicating all that they see correctly. They must work within their means and can only give what they can see - but even if Busacca saw it as timewasting or petulance in kicking the ball away, could he not have given van Persie a final warning, so the spectacle and any chance Arsenal had were not destroyed and with the incident at the end of the first half, wherein three Barcelona players throttled their Arsenal counterparts, surely leniency could have been exerted. All was there for Busacca to see and yet he chose to dismiss van Persie. A question that is also worth asking: if a Barcelona player had been in the same position, would Busacca have drawn for his red card? Though it cannot be proved, it is more or less fair to say that the answer is no.
This was all but game over for Arsenal. They had to hold out for the remaining half an hour with 10 men and because their wingers had to double up as full backs and their midfield would be pinned back by Barcelona’s masses off possession, they would have no player to fill van Persie’s place and would thereby have no outlet for any potential counter attack. Here began the onslaught: if the visitors thought the first half was bad, the next half an hour would make them long for such easy pastures. David Villa was only stopped by an excellent stop by Manuel Almunia, while Djourou had to produce an excellent block to deny Messi.
Arsenal could only hold out for so long and their resistance was broken in the 70th minute. It was a goal of great beauty, the passing and movement of Barcelona displaying almost perfectly the ideals of the two outfits. The home side were passing the ball around their midfield; Xavi deep to Iniesta as the former darts through Arsenal’s defence; Iniesta bursts through the middle, skipping the challenges of three defenders; pass to David Villa who produced the deftest of flicks to Xavi. The man who started the move calmly stroked the ball home and it was advantage Barcelona once more, despite the fact the tie was now level.
Barcelona were unceasing. Just two minutes after taking the lead, Pedro dribbled into the Arsenal box before being tripped by Laurent Koscielny, for whom it was unfortunate on a night on which he had been so impressive. Messi stepped up and delicately passed the ball into Almunia’s left hand bottom corner. Although not technically finished, there looked to be nothing that could salvage the tie for Arsenal.
From there on in, it was pass-pass-pass-pass, and then some from Barcelona. Only excellent saves from Almunia kept Arsenal in the tie. Pass-pass-pass-pass; death by a thousand passes - a common practice for them in England, but never before had they been on the receiving end of it to quite this extent. Qualification seemed to be well and truly certain for the Catalans until the 87th minute. Jack Wilshere, easily Arsenal’s man of the match, from the right sends a low through ball into the path of Nicklas Bendtner, who had replaced the Captain, Fàbregas. The Dane had Javier Mascherano on his tail but also had the ball on his favoured right side. Could it be? After the beating they had taken, could Arsenal still leave the Nou Camp as winners? But rather than take a shot first time or use his left foot to control the ball (to send it to his preferred right), Bendtner tried to control it with the outside of his right foot, which meant that Mascherano and Valdes could combine to regain the ball and end the attack. There, all the hope, the dreams and the expectations evaporated and briskly as they had formed. Arsenal would attack again in the 6 minutes that remained (with stoppages), but there was a palpable sense that their opportunity had gone.
When the final whistle blew, it was the hosts who celebrated, and rightly so. Despite scoring, Arsenal had 0 shots to Barcelona’s 10. The possession was shared 68%-32% in the home side’s favour. The victors completed 792 passes to a mere 214 from the visitors. Xavi and Iniesta were responsible for 218 of those passes, as Fàbregas and Wilshere mustered just 48. These stats all point to a demolition, which would almost definitely have been the case had it not been for Djourou, Koscielny and Almunia, who all were instrumental in keeping the score down to just 3-1. Barcelona were magnificent; Arsenal were not. But when the latter team think back to this game they will not think of the footballing lesson they received: they will think of what could have been had Massimo Busacca not made the outrageous call to send off van Persie. Going to the Nou Camp was never going to be an easy endeavour. Even with 11 men each, Barcelona dominated proceedings. But with van Persie on the field, who knows what would have happened. Arsenal could still have ended up on the losing side, but any modicum of a chance that existed for them was crushed in the 55th minute. They will look back in rue, in wonder and in despair. Of course, no one will ever know what would have happened, but you could have put your house on van Persie burying Bendtner’s 87th minute chance. However, this cannot detract from Barcelona’s brilliance on the field. This team belongs amongst the pantheon of legends, maybe even as the greatest club side ever assembled and tonight just argues that case further.