It is not one whose immense difficulty is recognised enough, primarily because it is so rarely in a position to be recognised. The substitute goalkeeper plays rarely and must use these occasional matches to make a lasting impression on their coach and their teams’ supporters. The nature of the goalkeeping position means that rotation is not a regular occurrence in league games, as it is with most outfield positions, so domestic cup games generally act as the platform for them to showcase their abilities.
90 minutes every six weeks or so leaves no chance to build momentum or grow off the back of a good performance. Indeed, if a backup goalkeeper makes a mistake in a cup game, they are tarred with the label of error-prone. The position of goalkeeper requires a lot of mental strength and self-belief, but the constant demoralisation of being placed on the substitutes’ bench week after week will take its toll to varying degrees, depending on the character at hand.
The difference between many goalkeepers at the highest level, ability notwithstanding, is their confidence. The best goalkeepers will have an impenetrable wall of confidence and belief in themselves. One of the worst things a goalkeeper can do is let mistakes beget further mistakes. Victor Valdes in the recent Clasico showed this on as big as a stage as possible. Valdes is an unorthodox goalkeeper and like Edwin van der Sar, Rene Higuita and many others before him, he takes on the ‘sweeper keeper’ role, acting almost as an eleventh outfielder. Part of this his all round play is passing the ball short to his defenders, rather than kicking it long. This backfired horribly on him during Barcelona’s clash with Real Madrid, culminating in the hosts taking the lead within 30 seconds. Immediately following his error, his passing was askew and he looked suspect but as the game wore on, he did not let the mistake get the better of him. He continued to pass it short, staying true to Barcelona’s style. He demonstrated his own confidence and how vital it was to his team’s and his own success.
Valdes was a figure in Ronald Reng’s book ‘A Life too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke’ during the German stopper’s spell in Catalonia. Enke’s time with Barcelona shows the difference in the required mentality between a first choice goalkeeper and a backup. As he had grown with local side Carl Zeiss Jena before moving onto Borussia Monchengladbach and Benfica, he had grown to thrive off being first choice and had been worthy of the role wherever he had gone. Coming to Barcelona, he was confined to the bench and was given his first chance in a Copa del Rey clash with Segunda B side Novelda, though by this time, self-doubt had begun to creep up on Enke and he was a shadow of the goalkeeper he had been when he left Benfica. His lack of self-assurance manifested itself upon him and he had an unfortunate hand (though it was not completely of his own doing) in the humiliating 3-2 loss than ensued. Although he impressed in a later Champions League match, the damage was done and he was never given a fair run at the Number One spot in Barcelona. He was loaned to Fenerbahce of Turkey in order to get his career back on track, though his crushed confidence led to him being at fault in a 3-0 defeat. When his confidence disappeared and he began to doubt himself, he fell to pieces, inducing a bout of depression which almost led to him quitting the game.
Enke’s recovery with Tenerife and Hannover showed as much as his spells at Monchengladbach and Benfica that he had the ability and the mentality to be a first choice goalkeeper, but being a second choice at Barcelona damaged him. Reading this chapter of Reng’s fantastic book, sympathy is renewed for the second-choice goalkeeper: the likes of Lukasz Fabianski, Brad Guzan and Henrique Hilario. Fabianski looked a promising young ‘keeper and was well regarded among Arsenal fans until his mistakes in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea. Since then, he has remained a predominantly bit-part player and has only looked convincing during a run of games as first choice which was cruelly cut short by injury. Since then, Wojciech Szczesny has claimed the role as first choice for himself, for both Arsenal and Poland. Fabianski must be content with occasional Carling or FA Cup games and looks relatively shaky and uncomfortable when he plays.
Guzan was forever in the shadow of his fellow American Brad Friedel for his first three years at Aston Villa. He played well whenever called upon, but following the sale of the veteran to Tottenham, Villa chose to sign Shay Given, rather than allow Guzan to develop. Following the Irishman’s hamstring injury, Guzan has a chance to prove himself but no matter how well he does, he will probably be sent back to the bench as soon as Given recovers. Hilario is not good enough to be first choice goalkeeper at a club like Chelsea, especially with Petr Cech (despite his patchy form) ahead of him, but he continues on the payroll and never looks particularly good when he plays.
The best backup ‘keepers to have are young players who are vying to break into the team. They accept their roles on the bench and still have the desire and belief to try and force their ways into the team when given the chance. But even within that, they must have the right attitude. Goalkeepers young and old will invariably make mistakes. Physically, it is by far the most unique position in the game but it requires such unwavering confidence and self belief that many with the ability to become great fall by the wayside in one way or another. The pictures of Joe Hart grinning at the camera after Thomas Vermaelen’s effort flew just wide of his far post show that he does not seem phased by even the most important of occasions. For a goalkeeper with his talent, that mentality and approach will see him go far on the road to becoming a world class goalkeeper - a path on which he is very firmly set.
While the majority of ‘keepers do not share Hart’s talent, nor his propensity to brush off pressure, many would be far closer to the former with a pinch of the latter. It is imperative to a goalkeeper that he does not panic, but when all their opportunities are condensed into such small time frames, a substitute ‘keeper is likely to panic under the pressure. The misery the bench induces Saturday upon Saturday can be crushing and it requires massive strength on any backup’s part not to let this get to them.
Yes, yes, yes, Real Madrid and Barcelona will take the top two spots, but in what order?! The same order as last year, because Barcelona are just unstoppable. Barring a long term injury to Lionel Messi, nothing will stand in their way. Especially now as Thiago Alacantra is coming through after a strong Under-21 tournament and the protracted arrival of Cesc Fàbregas have strengthened their midfield further (if you believed it possible). Alexis Sanchez will take time to adjust but will be brilliant. You can’t stop them. Madrid will try in vain but fall short of the Catalans’ standard, as everyone does.
Enough about those two. The Spanish league is so much more than Madrid and Barça - while I understand the comparison with Scotland, in the sense that two teams dominate the league and for the rest it’s a fight for third, but in the SPL, the quality, even between the Old Firm teams, is dreadful. The quality of La Liga is extremely high and the season ahead looks to be an interesting one, outside of the top two.
The real foundation for intrigue are Malaga. With Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, they have an excellent coach and they’ve made some astute purchases, like Joris Matijsen, Jérémy Toulalan and especially Santi Cazorla. They’ll make a play for a top four finish, but they’ll fall short and end up in fifth or sixth. Not that they should be disheartened by this, but their signings do not indicate a long term plan. Only Ignacio Camacho and Cazorla, of their recent purchases, suggest a long-term plan for this group of players. I believe the idea is to get a foothold as a Europe-quality outfit (Europa League, to be precise) and use that status to attract a higher quality of player. For now, fifth or sixth is their place.
And they’ll battle for that place with Athletic Bilbao, who will be the ‘surprise package’ of the season. If any team outside of Valencia and Villarreal is to take one of places three and four, it will be the Basque men (though I doubt they will). Marcello Bielsa will set up a project and build up the club in his image, based on his marvellous footballing ideals. The outline for success is there, but Bielsa has been brought in to go that bit further, to the Champions League. There is most definitely the potential for that to happen, but patience will be needed. Valencia have lost Juan Mata to Chelsea but with Pablo Piatti, Dani Parejo and Sergio Canales coming in, they won’t feel his absence too badly, though they may well fall to fourth. The signings of Diego Alves and Adil Rami are excellent purchases. Meanwhile, the only changes at Villarreal this summer were postive - Cristian Zapata’s and Javier Camuñas’s signatures and the promotion of Hernan Perez will stand them in good stead. However, more significant will be the retention of Giuseppe Rossi. After they resisted Barcelona’s overtures for the Italian-American, he will go on to show just why they fought so hard to keep him. Nilmar and he will be a terrific partnership through the season. The race for third will be an enthralling one - the victor might as well be crowned as the champion of the Liga within La Liga.
Sevilla will struggle. Strong though their summer purchases have been, the appointment of Marcelino is a giant step backwards. He has never proved himself to be the best of managers and with Sevilla in a semi-precarious position - with both those beneath and above them getting stronger, Marcelino’s arrival may indicate a stagnation, or a dip, at this most important of times.
All the while, the relegation race will be unfathomably difficult to call. Just six points separated places eight to eighteen. Real Betis have returned to La Liga and have loaned in Roqué Santa-Cruz; a good season from him could be the difference between a miserable failure and survival. In the same way, Real Sociedad will need a big season from Carlos Vela. My personal belief is that Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Gijon and (though I really hope otherwise) Granada will be relegated. (Though I do not base this on any particular expertise, just from the small amount I’ve seen from each team).
The unfolding drama will provide a spectacular narrative this year. It’s not about who wins the league in Spain any more, which is sad in its own way, but in another it places a wider focus on the rest of the league. When you accept the title will be Barcelona’s again, then you can view La Liga as a league, rather than just a battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona as to who can be the biggest fish in this quickly shrinking pond. There are two leagues within this one, and the lower one makes for far more entertaining and exciting viewing, despite the slight in quality.
We all knew it would eventually happen. It was always only a matter of time until Cesc Fàbregas re-signed for Barcelona, but we, as Arsenal fans, cannot begrudge his move and our memories of him should not be clouded by his departure.
For the record, I believe he has made a huge mistake in returning now. He’s always going to be second in line to Xavi Hernandez and Andrès Iniesta (despite being better than the former), while the new contract awarded to Thiago Alacantra will go its way to securing him extra playing time; possibly leading to him being played ahead of Fàbregas.
But he has not betrayed Arsenal in any way, nor has he acted inappropriately. When compared to Liverpool’s ‘Captain Marvel’, ‘Leader’ and ‘Inspirational Figure’ Steven Gerrard, who has submitted numerous transfer requests and made so many threats to leave that I’ve lost count, and yet is still adored by the Anfield faithful, you cannot fault Fàbregas at all.
It’s worth noting that Fàbregas is from Barcelona, supported them growing up and played in their academy in his youth. By the sounds of it, he really just wants to go home. He began his trade at La Masia with the likes of Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi, while he retains friendships with Xavi, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets, to name but three. His family dwell in Barcelona and it’s his home. Any Arsenal fan thinking of criticising him should put themselves in his position - how many of them would turn down moves to Arsenal?
Rather than denigrate Fàbregas, we should remember the good times; the talent he displayed and the joy he provided. His arrival came in 2003/04, when he became Arsenal’s youngest ever appearance maker and goalscorer. In 2004/05, when he burst onto the scene and became the club’s youngest ever League and Champions League goalscorer, going on to win the FA Cup - the only trophy in his time in North London. In 2005/06, Patrick Vieira was sold to make way for the then 18 year old. He was instrumental in the Champions League campaign that took Arsenal all the way to the final. All the while he was growing into a World class player. 2006/07 was a more quiet season for the club and Fàbregas, but he started every league game and made 16 assists. His stock was growing across Europe as Arsenal and he resisted overtures from the likes of Real Madrid, Milan and Barcelona.
2007/08 was the mark of a break even further forward for the Spaniard. As Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg left, Fàbregas became the key creative influence in the side and he did not disappoint. Arsenal were the surprise packages of the season, taking the league by storm. They played a fantastic brand of free-flowing, attacking football and the 20 year old Cesc Fàbregas was the fulcrum of the side. They were looking sure favourites to win the league until Eduardo’s horrific injury at St. Andrew’s where, as we can all remember, it completely fell apart. Fàbregas made 22 assists and grew as a goalscorer, too, scoring 13 - a record for him in a season. He was crowned PFA Young Player of the Year. Over the summer, he won the European Championships with Spain, having a pivotal role as an impact sub. 2008/09 was his first season as ‘El Capitan’, after William Gallas was stripped of the role. However, he was ruled out for four months with knee ligament damage and would not return to action until March. His presence was sorely missed, and Arsenal had another trophyless season.
If ever conformation of Fàbregas’s brilliance was needed, the 2009/10 season provided it in spades. In the first game alone, he racked up two goals and two assists, as Arsenal demolished Everton 6-1. He continued to score goals and provide assists - with a joint total of 38 (19 each, respectively), growing as a leader and an on-field presence. He was the subject of intense transfer speculation and the rumours of his departure were stronger than ever, and he certainly didn’t go out of his way to deny it, as he had in previous seasons. Meanwhile, he was crowned a World Cup winner, setting up the goal in the final. Arsenal held out and he remained with them for another season. At the start of his final season, his commitment could certainly not be doubted, but as injury set in and he was constantly rushed back too quickly, did was not the Cesc Fàbregas we had seen in years past. I attribute the injury he picked up against Stoke on February 23rd as the key reason Arsenal fell to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final. After that, we never really saw a fully fit Fàbregas again. His time at Arsenal ended with a whimper, rather than the roar it deserved, his final game being the 2-1 defeat to Bolton.
His talent is undeniable. His professionalism is, too. He’s shown a love, respect and affection for Arsenal, only topped by his adoration of Barcelona. The pleasant times El Capitan gave us must be remembered above all else. His first goal, making him the club’s youngest ever scorer. His announcing of himself onto the English football scene with his domineering show against Manchester United in the 2004 Community Shield. His defiance of his youth throughout his time, playing like someone with so many more years of experience behind him.
A personal favourite memory of Fàbregas is his stunning show against Juventus in the 2005/06 Champions League quarter final. He ran the rule over Patrick Vieira, the man who he had just replaced, and topped his performance with a goal. His 25 yard stunner against Tottenham and the 35 yard winner at the San Siro in 2007/08 are both well worth remembering. Though my standout memories of Fàbregas will be the goals against Spurs, Aston Villa, and Barcelona, respectively, in the 2009/10 season. I always enjoy a victory against Spurs, but the two goals in eleven seconds was a wonderful memory. As I was still celebrating Robin van Persie’s goal, I turn around and see the ball trailing into the net and Fàbregas wheeling away in delight. He’d managed to humiliate Spurs in less than five touches. The Villa goal was an example of a Captain doing his job. Arsenal were struggling for a goal and he produces a moment of magic. Simple.
The Barcelona goal was another special moment. Against his hometown club, with the pressure of millions watching and a broken bone in his leg, he smashed home his penalty. Fantastic show of grit, determination and passion, all of which Fàbregas embodies, along with style and magnificent technique and vision.
He is leaving the club at 24, with just one FA Cup to his name - much like a certain Liam Brady, who is undoubtedly one of the club’s legends, and to suggest otherwise is near-blasphemy (and rightly so). Although it is probable that the manner of Fàbregas’s departure will mean that he is not recognised as a legend - not straight away, at least.
Some may wish him ill in the future. They shouldn’t, he’s been a great player for us, and one who has fitted with the class on which Arsenal Football Club has always prided itself. (And even if you dislike him, remember - if he does well, Barcelona will have to pay up more!). No one can begrudge his desire to go home, all we can do is wish him the best of luck and thank him for the service he has done for us.
No one gave us a chance. Following on from last year’s thrashing at Barcelona’s hand, everyone assumed this was just another chapter of the same story and that a weaker Arsenal would get a more brutal beating from a stronger Barcelona.
Only this year there was a little more nouse about Arsenal, and far fewer injuries. Last year, there was no Robin van Persie, an injured William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin needing replacement before half time, an idiot between the posts, Cesc Fàbregas needing to be rushed back from injury, Alex Song at centre half, Denilson playing - in short, that team was in no fit state to tackle the strongest team around. This year, the only injury was to Thomas Vermaelen. Wojciech Szczesny would start in goal and they were not going to suffer from their own naïvety as their counterparts of the previous year had. The only real change to Barcelona was the switch of David Villa for Zlatan Ibrahimovic - a definite improvement.
Many of Barcelona’s games seem to follow a pattern - the opposition decide they’re going to ‘get in their faces’ and not be ‘pushed around’. This idea seems as though it is paying dividends until the clock reaches the tenth minute, at which point Barcelona become near-impossible to dispossess. From there it’s a slow, painful and demoralising death for the challengers, as the Catalans slowly drain them of their stamina, strength and in some cases, their collective will to live. Their ball retention is the best going, by far, but it was not a destruction à la their last Emirates Stadium encounter. Arsenal had a gameplan and it was working - push Barcelona up the pitch with the high line and aim to play on the counterattack. In rewatching the game, it was plain to see that the back four waited for Barcelona to get past Song and Jack Wilshere and then charged them down. This worked in places, but a high line is always a risk, especially against the forward line of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez.
The Catalans broke past the line of defence three times in the first half. Once it was a sloppy pass by Song that meant, five touches later, Messi was bearing down menacingly on the goal. It was a narrow escape as the little Argentine fired wide. Uncharacteristic, but credit must go to Szczesny, who held his ground and stayed on his feet until just before Messi opened fire. The second time led to a goal. Gaël Clichy was caught behind the line and Villa needed no second chance to exploit the yard of space his poor positioning provided. Villa rarely misses and Szczesny had no chance. Barcelona were now a goal up. It would then have been easy to let them run riot, but it did not shift Arsenal’s game plan. They were broken through a third time but Pedro’s eventual goal was (somewhat luckily) ruled out for offside.
Though this is not to say that Arsenal had no opportunities through the first half. They came closest on a counterattcking move, involving van Persie, Fàbregas and Theo Walcott, with the latter two in something of a role reversal, as Walcott supplied the through ball from the centre circle and Arsenal’s captain sprinting onto it down the right hand side. The pass was slightly overhit, but Fàbregas made it onto the end of it in time to send a cross towards van Persie, which was just headed away by Abidal. Walcott came close in the early stages, while van Persie was unlucky with one effort and foolish with another, taking too much time before shooting and allowing Gerard Piqué to recover and force his shot wide.
By the half it was 1-0 to the Catalans, but it was not all doom and gloom on the terraces. There was a cautious optimism amongst the Arsenal faithful. They were only a goal away and we were posing an attacking threat. All was most certainly not lost. Indeed, as the second half began, the home crowd were in full voice, as they had been through the first half, and would continue to be through the second. In its short life, the Emirates Stadium had never experienced such a raucous atmosphere, or anything approaching it. It was a relief, in some ways - if the rest of the crowd would not sing and shout on this, of all occasions, then they would never do so. The second 45 were slightly more open than the first had been, with there being a more potent flow to the games of both sides. All the while the Londoners were looking more and more likely to get a goal, but the threat of Barcelona was always a looming shadow, lurking in the background after every missed attempt on goal.
Credit here must go to Laurent Koscielny. He almost marked Messi out of the game and on one particular Barcelona attack, Pedro was clean through behind the line of defence until Koscielny miraculously managed to disposes him without bringing him down. It was a game that showed all his good qualities as a defender, and though he was liable at the Carling Cup final just two weeks on, it left me completely convinced of his abilities. As the game went back on forth, it was plain to see that it would not end 1-0 to Barcelona, but it could so easily have gone either way. On 78 minutes, Clichy produced a nice bit of improvisation, chipping the ball to the waiting van Persie in the area; what followed was spectacular. With Nicklas Bendtner arriving in the area, everyone assumed that the Dutchman’s next move would be to play to ball towards the big Dane, even Victor Valdes. Spying a football-sized gap between ‘keeper and post, van Persie opened fire. From the other end of the ground, where I was sat, we saw the ball disappear behind the figure of Valdes, then re-appear in the now rustling net.
The best thing about watching and rewatching clips of the goal is that as the television coverage shows the replays, the crowd are seeing them at the same time, and as the ball sneaks through that minute gap between Valdes and the upright, there is a clearly audible collective intake of breath. Many, myself included, initially thought there may have been an element of luck about the goal, but it’s clear to see van Persie knew exactly what he was doing. Now there was the belief that we could actually win this. We didn’t have long to wait for the second.
It was another example of the end-to-end nature of the match. Barcelona were on the attack, then Koscielny made the tackle, Bendtner played it short to Jack Wilshere - another who played fantastically - who played it short to Fàbregas, then two touches later, Samir Nasri was flying down the right hand side. As he slowed up, it looked as though the chance my have alluded him. The ball in looked misplaced, as it was behind the onrushing van Persie, but Nasri clearly saw more than we did. The ball fell to Arshavin and within a second the ball was again in the back of Valdes’s net. Delight. The Emirates had never felt that level of jubilation - truly that stadium’s finest hour (so far).
Barça would continue to attack and despite the natural tendency, as Arsenal fans, to panic, there was a feeling that we knew we had won, and even as they spent the last 5 minutes camped in the penalty area, we knew the victory was ours. Wilshere and Koscielny were the outstanding performers on a night no one in the ground will soon forget. I still have the flags that were given to us on display in my room; despite the injustice that was the second leg (Bussacca, you cheating swine*), you can’t ever take away from the joy, jubilation and sense of triumph that came with reigning victorious over this Barcelona. I returned from the game hoarse and emotionally and physically drained and with a sixth form interview the following day, but that did not stop me from rewatching and reliving the last 90 minutes again. Unforgettable evening.
In almost 10 years of going to matches, I’ve seen the Arsenal lose and draw a number of times, but I’ve never seen them so thoroughly outplayed and destroyed as when they met Barcelona in March 2010; and yet they still came away from the game with a draw.
It was the two teams’ first meeting since the 2006 Champions League Final and the game marked the first reunion of Thierry Henry with his former club. There was much hype surrounding the game, as the two teams involved are generally considered to play the two most aesthetically pleasing styles of game in Europe, and that any watcher was to witness a spectacle of how football is played.
Those in search of majestic football were not to be disappointed, but (for the first half hour at least) those in search of a level contest would be. Barcelona ripped shreds from Arsenal and from a fan’s perspective, I’ve rarely seen football that good since Arsenal’s “Invincibles” of the 2003/2004 campaign - but more on them later. Barcelona began the onslaught as early as a minute in, when they earned a corner, the result of which was Sergio Busquets slamming an effort against the post. I was placed behind Victor Valdes’s first half goal, and I would not see the ball anywhere close to me for half an hour. Only the performance of a lifetime from Manuel Almunia had kept Arsenal from being annihilated.
Eventually, Arsenal strode forward, and came close themselves with a Samir Nasri effort drifting past Valdes’s left-hand post. Half time came as welcome relief, but Arsène Wenger’s gambles to rush William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin back from injury had backfired, as both were taken off before the half’s end. The teams re-entered for Act II and the Catalans continued their first half rampage. Gerard Pique, in possession on the half-way line, spotted that Thomas Vermaelen had been drawn forward by the ever-present threat of Lionel Messi, and as makeshift centre-half Alex Song had left Zlatan Ibrahimovic open, the Spanish defender sent the ball over to the free Swede, who took full advantage of Almunia’s indecision as to whether to commit to the loose ball by lobbing it over the dithering Spaniard’s head.
Barcelona’s second came in very similar fashion. Vermaelen caught away from the defensive line and Song did not get tight to Ibrahimovic, but this time, Ibrahimovic exploited an opening at Manuel Almunia’s near post. Arsenal looked finished. There looked to be no hope for them, and many thoughts were directed to how many more were to be conceded. With things the way they were, Barça looked unplayable.
6 minutes after Barcelona’s second, Theo Walcott was introduced to proceedings. Then Arsenal began to attack, and he had got the better of Maxwell twice already, and Arsenal suddenly began to look dangerous. Nasri knocked a pass to Bendtner, who held up the ball for a few seconds before sliding the ball through to Walcott. It was a golden opportunity for Arsenal, and if there was any hope of a comeback, it would have to be taken. Walcott’s effort was poor, but it escaped under the body of Valdes and into the net. There was a renewed belief about the Arsenal players, but even moreso amongst the fans. The atmosphere had started as electric, but as the goals went in, the crowd became more deflated, but when Walcott’s effort hit the net, the Arsenal faithful regained a hope that was all but lost after they fell two goals behind.
Away from the actual play, the moment for which so many of the Arsenal fans had been waiting arrived 77 minutes in. Thierry Henry replaced Ibrahimovic and was awarded a rapturous reception. For 8 incredible years, Henry lit up the red half of North London; he was voted Arsenal’s Greatest Ever by a poll on the club website; he holds Arsenal’s all-time goalscoring record; he was at the forefront of their 2002 double-winning team and the aforementioned ‘Invincibles’ - quite simply, the Frenchman is an Adonis to the Arsenal and for a moment, the intensity of the game simmered as we in the crowd welcomed home a hero of years gone by.
Back to the play, Arsenal looked as though they could achieve what at the hour mark seemed impossible and draw level. At 85 minutes, Eboué played the ball to Walcott down the right-hand side. He delivered a low cross, but it was deflected off Carles Puyol and looped into the air. It arrived on the head of Nicklas Bendtner and his positioning meant that he was unable to make an attempt at goal, but he did incredibly to nod to ball towards Cesc Fàbregas. The former La Masia man arched himself for the shot, but was caught by Puyol. The latter was red-carded and Arsenal had a penalty.
The Arsenal Captain stood against his compatriot Valdes. He was a Barcelona fan growing up, he played for their youth academy with Pique and Messi, amongst others, and now he had the chance to level the scoring for the side who gave him the opportunity to reach his potential as one of the World’s finest creative players. The entire stadium fell silent. Fàbregas stepped up and blasted the ball straight into the Barcelona net. The fans, as a collective, went insane with delight. Even fans on the Upper Tier were jumping and singing - a very rare occurrence.
At this point, everyone looked back to the pitch, and saw the goalscorer Fàbregas limping back to the centre circle. He had broken a bone in his leg in his challenge with Puyol and yet had still picked himself up to score from the spot. Any who questioned the Captain’s commitment to the club were silenced in dramatic fashion. He was to miss the rest of the season which, it can be argued, scuppered Arsenal’s then strong title challenge.
I have since re-watched the game and still found myself aghast at the sight of such an incredible footballing spectacle. The football played early on by Barcelona was extraordinary, but even moreso was the spirit shown by Arsenal, after being pummelled for the majority by Barcelona, to come back and gain a draw; topped off by Thierry Henry’s return home, it really was a brilliant night of football.
Best team: Barcelona. Easy choice, but this team is just phenomenal. Possibly the greatest team of all time, beaten just twice in La Liga and dropped a grand total of 18 points through the entire season. Champions League finalists boasting the likes of Daniel Alves (despite his tendency to throw himself to the floor), Xavi Hernandez, David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Wonderful team.
Best player: too easy to say Lionel Messi, but he deserves it. 52 goals and 24 assists in 54 games. Just unbelievable, especially when you consider that he doesn’t turn 24 until June. For the sake of football, I hope he hasn’t peaked to soon because he has the potential to grow into the finest ever. Honourable mentions go to Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Best game: it’s not a bias thing and I’m not just remembering a fantastic night, but Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona. Two teams whose philosophies are built on passing the ball and it was a brilliant spectacle of the game at its best, while the game itself was thrilling and it had a raucous atmosphere surrounding it.
Best signing: Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Peter Odemwinge are strong calls but my personal preference is Edinson Cavani. He may not have been the top scorer in Serie A but 26 league goals in 35 games and 33 in 47 in all competitions, which is just 4 less goals than he scored in four years at Palermo. He’s stepped up incredibly, becoming Napoli’s highest league scorer in a season and helping them to automatic qualification for the Champions League, just six years after they were in the dregs of Serie C1.
Worst signing: Joe Cole. Quoting Steven Gerrard at the start of the season, “Messi can do some amazing things, but anything he can do Joe can do as well, if not better.” Well Cole’s season was about as successful as Liverpool’s last twenty one title challengers. Sent off on his début for an idiotic challenge on Laurent Koscielny, missed a penalty on his second game and has been sparsely used since, while the likes of Maxi Rodriguez, Raul Meireles and Luis Suarez have made potential first team positions their own, leaving first team football an unlikely prospect next season.
Best goal: it didn’t get wide spread recognition, but my personal favourite was Raul Meireles vs. Wolves. Long ball up the pitch, only half cleared, it fell to the Portuguese international around 25 yards from goal and he smashed it right into the top corner. Everything about the volley was perfect. It was hit with the right amount of power, it spun outward, then back towards the top corner flawlessly. Brilliant goal.
Managerial situation of the year: Delio Rossi at Palermo. After their 7-0 demolition at the hands of Udinese, Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini said: “Rossi has a 1% chance of staying. He has ruined my Palermo,” said Zamparini. “He has destroyed this team. I told the coach to sort out the defence and he didn’t. Rossi dropped Ezequiel Muñoz and he is the best in defence. You can’t play like that.” Surprisingly enough, Rossi was dismissed of his duties and Serse Cosmi was brought in as his replacement. Nothing strange there. Three losses and one win against eventual Champions AC Milan ended in Cosmi losing his job. An overreaction from Zamparini after Catania had emerged as 4-0 victors in the Sicilian derby. To fill the now empty seat on the Palermo bench, who did Zamparini bring in? You guessed it - Delio Rossi. Just a month after describing him as having ‘ruined his Palermo’, Rossi was now back with the Rosanero. He went on to lead them to a Coppa Italia final in which they lost 3-1 to Inter, before announcing his resignation at the end of the season. Insanity.
Cheat of the year: Daniel Alves vs Real Madrid, Champions League first leg. Admittedly, Pepe could have broken his leg the way he went into the tackle, but the show Alves put on was a disgrace. Looking at him immediately after the incident, you’d think he’d been shot. And not to denigrate Lionel Messi’s magnificent second goal, but Real Madrid were missing the man who had acted as a wall in front of the back four, as Messi weaved his way through the team.
This is, of course, working on Fàbregas’s own words that he would only leave North London to return to Catalunya. For himself, above the wishes of his current employers and his possible future home, staying where he is now is by far the best possible course of action.
The Arsenal Captain has only just turned 24. Already a magnificent playmaker, he still has room for improvement. In terms of his abilities in his role on the pitch, there are only two players who are better than he in world football - they come in the forms of Xavi Hernàndez and Andrès Iniesta, the men who make Barcelona as great as they are. They played 100 games between them last season (50 each). Fàbregas, being at the level at which he is currently, would never be able to force either player to be dropped. This would leave him on the bench, stagnating, his remarkable talent almost going to waste. With improvement still on the agenda, why would he possibly want to halt his development, especially now, while he is on the cusp of becoming one of the best midfielders of this generation? The way he plays, he could keep going until he is 35. With so much time and being as good as he is, he should be the hub of Arsenal’s team, starting every game he can, not a bit-part player for a team that don’t need him.
Arsenal are demanding £50,000,000, and rightly so - he’s worth every penny. The fact is, though, that he is not an imperative signing for Barcelona. This would make him a Fernando Torres at Chelsea-esque vanity buy, and despite Roman Abramovic’s belief, no vanity signing is worth £50,000,000. Reports suggest that Barcelona will not pay the full sum Arsenal are demanding but will offer a sum of money and a player. The players suggested so far are the likes of Bojan Krkic and Thiago Alacantra - unestablished players and no replacement for Arsenal’s best player. Despite Barcelona’s influx of money this year after their Champions League triumph and new sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, it does not seem as though they are willing to meet Arsenal’s valuation. And why should they? As I say, he’s not an essential purchase.
Which all goes to show that Barcelona are more looking to sign him to prove they can than to help themselves or Fàbregas himself in any way. It is slightly worrying that Fàbregas doesn’t see that himself, but it is more alarming that he seems to think that the move is a good idea. He does not come ahead of Xavi and Iniesta in the national team, he cannot play Sergio Busquets’s role, his place would be on the bench. He is seen by many as the natural successor to Xavi but while he still reigns in the centre of Barcelona’s midfield, there is no place for Fàbregas. A wiser time for him to move would be when Xavi starts to fade. He is 31 now and I believe he has around 3 years left of being able to play every week. When he hits 34-35, he may take on a similar role to the one Paul Scholes had at Manchester United in his final years, not playing every week, but still with a role in the side.
This is all neglecting the importance of his role at Arsenal. They need him. He is their Captain, their star player and their creator. Their system is built to get the best from him and he is the lifeblood of the team. Losing him could have massive consequences on their position and future, hence their determination to keep him around. He did push for a move last summer, but when you compare his methods in bartering for a transfer to those of many other players in the same position, it did not seem as though it was what he desired above all else. It came across more as a man who had been on a lengthy holiday saying “it’s been fun, but I think I’d like to go home now”, while at the same time not being too unhappy with remaining where he is. He did not submit a transfer request, he did not holler his wishes in the media and did not openly play as a man who no longer wanted to be at Arsenal.
It seems as though a move in two or three years may suit every party better - Fàbregas will get a starring role at his dream club, Arsenal will have a better prepared Aaron Ramsey to fill the void of his departure and Barcelona will have a replacement for Xavi, whose importance cannot be overstated. Fàbregas has always spoken of his love for Arsenal and for London - he may not be delighted with his situation but he does not seem unhappy or discontented at all. Showing the passion and commitment to Arsenal that he has shown in his seven years will only make Barcelona want him all the more when Xavi’s time begins drawing to a close. On all levels, it just makes more sense.
I’ll start by admitting that is a slightly misleading headline - what I’m trying to convey through this is that this Barcelona team really are that good. The greatest club side of my lifetime (though that isn’t saying a lot as I’ve been alive almost 16 years. They do though, trump Arsenal’s invincibles, on the grounds that Barcelona would win in a match).
Some of the criticisms levelled at this side are pathetic. My favourite being “would they do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Stoke?” Well of course they wouldn’t! In Spain, they don’t have cold weather, rain, violent teams and bad pitches - in fact, every team in Spain follows the tiki-taka philosophy and exist only to lose to Barcelona. Just because the Stoke-esque teams of English football are more prominent and recognised than their Spanish equivalents, it doesn’t mean than Spain has no similar outfits. Pitches in places like Osasuna would put the lumpy, haggard surface of the Brittania Stadium to shame. There are teams who go out to halt Barcelona’s passing, to get in their faces and kick them about the pitch - Real Madrid being a prime example, and few come higher profile than they. In the Champions League Semi-Finals, José Mourinho’s men went out to stop Barcelona’s football and still lost.
You could argue that was down to Barcelona’s own foul tactics, which came in the form of throwing themselves on the floor when any Madrid player entered a 30cm radius of them. This tactic can mainly be isolated to Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodriguez and Daniel Alves. The main incident cited is Pepe’s red card for a foul on Alves, which a number of videos have shown involved no contact between the two players. Did Alves cheat? By the looks of it (though he denies it), certainly. Was it justified? Possibly. Looking at how Pepe went into the tackle, if Alves leg had been planted in the ground, there could have been a horrific injury on his hands. The diving and theatrics are not a regular feature of Barcelona’s game, watching them week-on-week. As a matter of fact, I’ve only ever seen them use it against Mourinho teams (barring the 5-0 in December 2010) and their more physical opposition - simply, they use it as a defence mechanism. This protects them from injuries, to some extent, but is also a clever tactic to open the referee’s eyes to the ‘foul’ tactics of their oppositions and almost make the referee see them favourably. Not wholly honest, but very clever.
And what about their dependence on Lionel Messi? Where would they be without him? They would be a different team. It is natural that Messi gets the majority of their goals and assists because they are made to play in a way that allows Messi to flourish as their key player. You can’t criticise them for dependence on Messi - and in doing so denigrating the rest of their team - when they are built to suit the Argentine.
That criticism also neglects the enormous of talent that coarses through the rest of the team. For a start, there are Xavi Hernandez and Andrès Iniesta, who are the finest midfield players on the planet. The sheer number of passes that Xavi averages defies belief. His vision and ability to find space leave onlookers marvelling, while Iniesta has the vision, the passing and technical skill and dribbling, which is only topped by that of Messi. There are Piqué and Puyol, who form an excellent partnership - an excellent blend of agression, physicality and skill on the ball; Alves, who is the best attacking right-back there is; Abidal, who is solid and dependable, despite his tendency to be a more defensive full back; then they have the best centre forward in the World in David Villa.
Three oft-neglected members of this magnificent team are Victor Valdes, Pedro and Busquets. Valdes is generally seen as an average ‘keeper, only having a place in the best team in the World because, Barcelona being how they are, he really doesn’t have a lot to do. A massive misconception. This season, he went 12 straight games without conceding a goal and has the ability to pull of blinding stops when required to do so. Not to mention his own passing ability - a product of La Masia, and his own range of passing shows this. Pedro’s scoring record is just stunning. He has scored 45 goals in two full seasons in the first team and his movement is incredibly intelligent. He compliments Messi brilliantly - moving into the space Messi creates (à la the Champions League final) and he is lethal in front of goal. It is often said that the fear of Messi is almost as effective as the man himself, but this would not be so without Pedro (and Villa). When Messi distracts the defence, causing panic by his mere presence, there needs to be someone good enough to capitalise on the open space - and Pedro is most certainly good enough.
Then there is Busquets: the diving, allegedly racist scumbag, the anchor of Barcelona’s wonderful midfield trio. Amid these negative qualities, his ability is so often overlooked, in terms of talent. His tacking is impeccable, as is his positional sense and (of course) range of passing. Underrated as a deep lying playmaker, but I believe he does posses elements of a Xabi Alonso-style midfielder in his game - the vision, passing and ability to turn defence into attack are not recognised, nor remembered once the ball is given to his midfield partners or the forwards in front of them. This is not to mention his physical presence - standing at 6’2”, which is only an aid in his position. He’s be a massive tosser on the pitch (and possibly off it, too), although this should not stand in the way of people recognising his ability. After all, it works for Cristiano Ronaldo.
There are no holes in this Barcelona team. They may be full of midgets, but these midgets are extraordinarily talented midgets. They can dig deep physically if they need to as well. The lowest percentage they had in any La Liga game this year was 62%, which many teams can only aspire to have as their highest. Mourinho’s Internazionale’s gameplan is generally viewed as the way to outdo Barcelona, but the Catalans did have a 19 hour coach trip to get to the San Siro, Diego Milito had an offside goal awarded and Wesley Sneijder was extremely fortunate not to be penalised for a foul on Alves in the penalty area. In the second leg, they only got through because Barcelona had a goal incorrectly ruled out for a handball by Yaya Touré. The only flaw in this side is the lack of depth in the squad, which the higher management are looking to rectify this coming summer. They’re the greatest club side of all time, so enough of this mindless criticism. They’re not perfect the perfect team, but they’re as close as we’re going to get in this lifetime. Why find fault? Just enjoy the beauty of the game you are witnessing.
With so much hype, excitement and anticipation surrounding the Champions League final, it was a worry for some that the game would crumble in upon the expectation on it, but those people had nothing to fear. Arguably Europe’s two finest teams, champions of their respective leagues, facing off for the crown of Europe. But there was no contest at all. It was Rome 2009 all over again, only with a slightly more invigorating script and better goals.
Had the two matches been plays, the second would be written off as plagiarism. Manchester United started the game very well, not allowing Barcelona to settle, causing misplaced passes, dominating possession and keeping the ball in the Barcelona half. Though it seemed that as the clock hit 10 minutes, United could not get the ball. David Villa sent a cross to Pedro, which the young Spaniard scuffed and sent wide, wasting the best chance of the game in doing so. This was after a ball over the top to Wayne Rooney was acrobatically punched clear by Victor Valdes minutes earlier. After Pedro’s miss, Villa sent a chance narrowly off target, while the threat Barça were posing was growing to a level as large as the amount of money Sepp Blatter has obtained entirely legally through his work as FIFA President.
Pedro made amends for his miss on 26 minutes. Xavi broke into the empty space between United’s midfielders and their back four, spying Pedro completely free to his right. Typically of Xavi, he sent a perfect through ball to him with the outside of his right foot and Barcelona’s number 17 took one touch to control the ball, and another to fire it into Edwin van der Sar’s goal. What was not seen on camera was Nemanja Vidic tearing into Patrice Evra for not being in his position. Despite not touching the ball, Lionel Messi had a monumental part in this goal. Clearly given the task of man marking Messi, Evra followed him into the centre of the field, leaving the left back area open for Pedro to exploit.
They came agonisingly close to a second after Villa’s cross eluded Messi by inches. To their credit, United did not let the goal destroy their confidence. Rooney was given the ball about half way in Barcelona’s half. He played a sleek one two with Michael Carrick and continued to advance on goal. He spotted Ryan Giggs in between Eric Abidal and Gerard Piqué and exchanged another one two. There was a hint of offside when he passed the ball to Giggs, but there can be no arguing with the finish. With one swift movement of his foot, Rooney swept the ball straight into Valdes’s top corner. Rooney has not had the best of seasons, but his finish was really fantastic. A new hope for Manchester United, forcing many who claimed that it was over after Pedro’s goal (which a surprising number did) to eat their words.
Despite this, they did not assert themselves on the Catalans. Barcelona continued to dominate through to the end of the first half. From the restart, they took their dominance thus far and turned it up to eleven. For the next 10 minutes, United barely even touched the ball. Watching this, the collective belief was that only divine intervention would prevent Barça from scoring again. This belief turned to fact when Iniesta knocked a simple ball to Messi. La Pulga launched himself into the open space behind Ji-Sung Park and Michael Carrick and whacked a curling effort at goal just before Patrice Evra could block him. The shot curled viciously around Vidic and just beyond the reach of van der Sar. Not only did Los Culés’ fans erupt in joy but Messi exploded in joy and passion, never seen before of the little Argentine. With this goal, he was now level with Cristiano Ronaldo, having scored 53 goals in 55 games.
Nothing could stop them now. It was fast becoming relentless, merciless, possibly even cruel. Daniel Alves and Messi were denied by strong van der Sar saves, but there was a definite feeling that it was only a matter of time before a third and it looked as though this belief had translated itself onto the pitch. When the third came, it was worth waiting for. Messi went on another marauding, mazy run, only to be dispossessed on the edge of the area by Nani. After a poor clearance, Sergio Busquets stole the ball and laid it back to David Villa. Spain’s all time leading scorer stopped the ball, the curved the ball beautifully into the top corner of van der Sar’s net, showing why so many believe him to be the World’s finest centre forward. On first viewing, my initial thought was that van der Sar could have done better with it, but watching it from the reverse angle, it was plain to see than he had no chance of saving the ball. A goal well worthy of winning the Champions League - there was no way back for United now.
The game petered out somewhat after Barcelona obtained their two-goal advantage. United had appeals for a penalty waved away when the ball struck Villa on the hand, though as his hand was by his side, by the game’s laws, it was not a penalty. There was another eruption of cheers from the Barcelona faithful on the final whistle - they had sealed their third Champions League in five years (having reached the semi finals in the two non-triumphs). A truly magnificent achievement: they know they are watching possibly the greatest team ever assembled and they believe there is more to come. This team could monopolise Europe for the forseeable future.
The hub of this team is Xavi Hernandez. The pass master completed 124 passes. To put that into context, that was 84 passes more than Manchester United’s most prolific passer, who was Rio Ferdinand with 40. Together, they completed 662 passes to United’s 301, while Iniesta and Busquets exchanged 45 passes to one another, more than any two other players on the pitch. Barcelona had 19 shots (12 on target), in comparison to 4 (1 on target - the goal) from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The possession split was 67%/33% in favour of the Catalans, while United committed 11 more fouls than Barcelona, with 16-5. Edwin van der Sar made 8 saves; Victor Valdes made none.
Sir Alex’s men did not seem to have a properly formed plan to deal with Messi. He roamed across the pitch, dragging players with him, freeing space for the rest of his team and then at other times, found himself with a wealth of space - far too much to give one as gifted as he. Ferguson claimed that there would be less naivety about United than there was at Rome, but they seemed even weaker and more naive than the United of two years previous. The biggest error Ferguson made was starting Javier Hernandez and deploying a 4-4-2. They could not strangle Barcelona’s midfield and Messi, in his role as Trequartista, could exploit the space between the midfield and the defence.
Safe to say, United were destroyed, but this is no source for shame. They were dismantled by this team that will surely go down as one of the greatest. The majesty, brilliance and beauty of Barcelona’s game was fantastic viewing and after the game, Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up better than anyone else could have: “In my time as a manager I would say yes, this is the best team I’ve faced”.
A rematch and a chance to avenge their 2009 Champions League final defeat for Manchester United; an opportunity to cement three Champions League triumphs in five years for Barcelona. The game is the pinnacle of European football and considering the two teams’ campaigns, it is potentially the best fixture to round what has been an invigorating year of football across Europe.
In footballing terms, United were completely outdone in Rome - the 2-0 scoreline does not suggest a thrashing by any means, but watching the game, the Premier League outfit were outclassed in every area - especially through the centre of midfield. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta ran the show and were instrumental to the Catalans’ triumph. Michael Carrick and Anderson may as well have sat the game out, such was their effect on proceedings as the Spaniards marauded through the centre of the park. It’s common belief that to stop Barcelona, you must stop Xavi and Iniesta - much easier said than done: the sheer number of passes the two put together defies belief. The presence of Darren Fletcher may be integral (if he is deemed fit to play). He was a notable absentee in Rome after receiving a red card in the semi final, he is United’s only defensive midfielder (bar Owen Hargreaves; no need to explain further) and someone guarding the back line could stem the flow of Xavi and Iniesta and also track Lionel Messi’s runs if Guardiola deploys him as a Trequartista.
And what about Messi? While waxing lyrical over the creative masters in the centre of the park, the diminutive Argentine was almost overlooked in their favour as Barcelona’s greatest asset. How can Manchester United stop him? Man marking him will just leave a space that will be exploited by another player. Zonal marking may be of more use, but that means that the mobile Barcelona forward line can attack one area as a unit. A cross of the two marking styles may be in order - with one player elected to stick to Messi in each area of the pitch (i.e. if he’s down the right, Patrice Evra will man mark him there, if through the centre, the job falls to Fletcher, etc.). On the premise that works, which, seeing as I just thought of it, it probably won’t, this deals only with the problem of Messi. David Villa and Pedro together have 39 goals and 19 assists between them this year and they represent massive threats for United.
So far, I’ve only really focussed on Barcelona and on how Manchester United can stifle them, with little consideration of the Mancunian’s potential to dominate the game. That’s because it will be on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to stop Pep Guardiola’s side - it can be taken as a given that Barcelona will dominate possession and the general proceedings, but there is much that United can learn from Arsenal. When the Catalans faced Arsenal in the second round, they were dangerously close to being knocked out, after having lost in the first leg and been close to an aggregate loss in the Nou Camp (before Robin van Persie’s dismissal). In the first leg, Arsenal were dogged, chasing the ball in the final third but being completely contented with Barcelona keeping it in the middle of the park. They played on the counter attack, but most importantly, they had the visitors in catching distance going into the final 20 minutes, as they began to tire. This has been a common trend when teams play against Barcelona - though it is possible that they will dig deeper with taking the significance of the occasion into account and not allow themselves to slip - but if United are level or only a goal down around the 70 minute mark, the time may come to introduce Chicharito (who looks set to start on the bench) and really have a go at Barcelona.
And the Premier League champions pose a big threat on the counter attack, with the likes of Nani, Rooney and Valencia. This United looks like it will have less naivety then their 2009 counterparts, who tried to beat Barça at their own game. In terms of personnel, this side is much weaker than the one of 2009, but that may mean that they are more suited to fighting Barcelona away. If they line up in a like-for-like 4-3-3, built for counter attacking, they have a better chance. This means leaving out Chicharito and playing Park, Fletcher and Carrick as a midfield three. For all this talk of United’s improvement, one must acknowledge the improvements of Barcelona, too. The likes of Messi, Pedro and Iniesta have all grown as players (though not physically) in the last two years, while they have brought in David Villa who has been prolific over the last few season, the final weeks of the season notwithstanding. Then there is the back four. In Rome, three of Barcelona’s first choice back four were absent, meaning Yaya Touré and Gerard Piqué were the centre-half pairing, with Carles Puyol at right back and an ageing Sylvinho at left back. This year, they look like they will have their first choice back line (Abidal-Puyol-Piqué-Alves), not to mention the developments of Sergio Busquets and Piqué since then, despite both of them having started.
United have a mammoth task on their hands. If they take down this Barcelona team, they will join the pantheon of Manchester United legends, but they must take down possibly the greatest side ever assembled. There is a simple reason why Barcelona are the pre-game favourites: they are a far, far better team. But United definitely have enough about them to win in 90 minute contest. Personally, I am backing Barcelona to win comfortably. I think they will have too much quality for Manchester United, but we’ve all seen Sir Alex pull off miracles - the 1999 final in Barcelona for one. It will make for fascinating viewing.