In Rome 2009, Manchester United tried to take the early advantage against Barcelona. Their energy in the first ten minutes threatened to overwhelm Barcelona, but they missed the few chances they had and once Barcelona scored, it was slow suffocation as United lost the midfield, and then the game. The second goal was rubbing salt in the wounds, and although critics would point to Ferguson’s tactics, Carrick not performing or Ronaldo failing, the truth was that United’s game-plan hinged on hitting Barcelona hard and early, and once they fluffed that, they were gone.
Inter in 2010 were a different proposition – their physical game in the first leg worked, partially helped by the long bus journey Barcelona had to make prior to the game, but it was a close call despite the 3-1 scoreline and Inter would have been foolish to try the same away from home. So they sat back and waited, and prayed. In the end, they could afford to defend, a 2-goal margin gives you that cushion.
Arsenal in 2011 didn’t try to be Inter – they couldn’t – and they weren’t exactly United. Wenger had his own plans, which to be fair worked well in the first leg, and if you had to look at a previous game to match that performance it was probably Chelsea v Barcelona in 2009 – when Chelsea sat back, weathered the storm and tried to outlast the Barcelona players, banking on their experience in playing high tempo games in the Premier League. It very nearly worked too.
Arsenal of 2011 are no where near the physical side that Chelsea were in 2009, but they are better technically. Problem is, Barcelona are vastly improved from 2009, and even from 2010 (although would you pick Eto’o in his pomp or Villa at his peak?). They were still vulnerable to Arsenal’s start-slow-finish-strong tactics in the first leg, and despite not being able to ‘put three passes together’ or get a shot on target, they were still in with a chance if the game had stayed at 1-0 to Barcelona by the 70th minute (do you remember Emirates from a few weeks ago?).
The referee’s decision will be a contentious point till next season, but the injustice doesn’t wipe away Barcelona’s superior stats, just as Barcelon’a superior stats don’t discount the fact that the sending off changed the game. It’s the rule that needs changing to give players more leeway. A yellow card for a wild two-footed lunge and a yellow card for taking a shot a second after the whistle? It’s not the referee, it’s what they’re told in the rulebook.
These are not sour grapes, nor am I a Madrid or Arsenal fan. Such is the game of football that small margins have big impacts on how games turn out. There were a lot of what ifs for Arsenal fans after last night’s game – there have been many what ifs for dozens of other teams who have lost to Barcelona in the last few years. Arsenal have that effect on most teams in England and Europe.
What’s good to see though, is Arsenal playing to their strengths – perhaps not their much-heralded ones of passing and flowing football, but the less-recognised ones of strength, discipline and endurance. It’s taken them a while to build them up, and the pragmatic approach taken by Wenger going into this game was far more refreshing than the hyperbole dished out by Arsenal fans in the buildup. You might argue that other teams have fared better than Arsenal at Camp Nou, or better against Barcelona in crunch games, but that’s quibbling over small margins. Arsenal over-reached by playing an unfit Fabregas, but beyond that they did quite well, and would have done better if not for the referee.
As a United fan, I hope they’re still one season short of fulfilling their potential in the league. In Europe, Arsenal have no chance to but to prove it all over again next season.