For years now, soccer experts around the world have marveled at the skill on display every week in the English Premier League from a youthful Arsenal team that exhibited so much potential over the course of several seasons. Their manager, Frenchman Arsene Wenger had always preached skill over power, style over strength, and youth over experience. The end product has been disappointment and frustration as the team from North London consistently tripped and feel when it came to overcoming the power teams in England and Europe. Tonight, at The Emirates, they faced probably the most highly rated team in the world in Barcelona, and after a spellbinding encounter, finally put to rest those claims that they had no stamina or courage.
Barcelona came to the Champions League Knockout stages on the backs of a commanding lead at the top of La Liga in Spain, and heavy favorites over an Arsenal team that was completely outclassed in the same competition only 12 months prior. Arsenal, on the other hand, were clinging on to the coattails of Manchester United at the top of the Premier league, and desperately trying to gain respect from the world’s media when taking on the stronger clubs.
Wenger has always been criticised, by me particularly, that he over protected his players and tended to grasp for excuses to explain away unexpected defeats, rather than realistically questioning the performances from his players. Time and time again, we had watched Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool completely overwhelm this team to the point where even loyal Arsenal fans wondered if they ever would be strong enough to take the League title again.
They started well against a Barcelona team that was intent on attacking. Playing their natural game of pass and move, Arsenal had the Spaniards chasing shadows for the first 10-15 minutes, but as the half unfolded, Barcelona’s superiority started to show through and it was no surprise that David Villa put them 1-0 up with a beautifully constructed passing movement. We all now wondered if we would see the Londoners crumble in the face of adversity. As the second half got under way, it was clear that they were not going to curl up and die. To their everlasting credit, they stuck with their style, and looked the better team for large portions of that half. When Robin Van Persie slammed in a volley inside Victor Valdez’s near post, we definitely got the feeling that this was not going to be an ordinary night. Not even five minutes later, Nasri and Arshavin combined in a stinging counter attack that commentator Clive Tyldesley called “A Barcelona goal, scored by Arsenal”. No, Clive, that was a English Premier League goal scored by Arsenal. A classic end to end move that caught the Spaniard’s flat-footed and when Andrei Arshavin tucked away a deft right footer, The Emirates erupted. Arsenal beat Barcelona and had finally matured as a team.
Now we know that this is only the first leg, and Barcelona will be incredibly tough at the Nou Camp in two weeks, but despite the Catalans’ tremendous ability, they defend very high up the pitch and if you can get at, or around their back four, you can score against them. They are not used to being attacked and sometimes they get caught out of position, especially in their own half. Arsenal have the disadvantage of losing an away goal so they cannot shut up shop and defend, but if they play as they did tonight, they could very well pull off the unthinkable.
I think we saw Wenger’s charges take the next step tonight, and the return leg will be an indication of whether it is short lived, or whether we’ve seen the beginning of the next dynasty in English soccer.
I’d keep looking over your shoulder, Sir Alex. Arsene’s not far behind and he’s closing fast.