Date: 1st April 2010 at 11:01am
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The game that had been on everyone`s lips for the past ten days had finally arrived. The shadow of the match loomed large over league encounters with West Ham and Birmingham City and now I felt as though I could finally start thinking about it and talking about it. Yesterday morning at work, I had to preside over an open day and be available for questions and discussion. My colleagues, knowing me as they do, were for the most part not conversing with me about training and development or talent management. They were interested in talking about talent, but then I`m not really paid to talk about Lionel Messi, Xavi or Cesc Fabregas. The tickets for the away leg had arrived during my weekend absconscion to Birmingham and eight of the nine of us that were travelling together began to talk about the trip with enthused relish, aware that we were the envy of Europe, dining on the top table of football`s finest delicatessen.

As the pre match team news filtered through in the pub I grew concerned, the news that Gallas and Fabregas were both starting did not bode well for me. I always felt Gallas` inclusion in the squad was an insurance policy in case Cesc couldn`t make it and we needed another leader. With Arshavin and Nasri also carrying knocks, I didn`t feel we could afford to carry that many unfit players against a side of this quality. Let`s just say my faith in Arsenal`s medical department in assessing all of their levels of fitness is about as strong as wet cardboard. The pre match prose promised pretty football and plenty of goals; the match ball was to be flown down my hand picked angels as the teams emerged from the tunnel in virginal white vestments flanked by a hundred white turtle doves. In his last ever professional match for Boca Juniors, Maradona gave a heart rending speech, with tears in his eyes and the microphone in hand, he thrust the ball to the sky and told his adoring public, “No matter what any individual does or has done, the ball is always clean.” Football was about to be purged for its sins.

But there was only one team in the mood to caress the ball in the opening stages. Guardiola confidently informed the press that Barcelona`s main objective was an away goal and they wasted no time at all in looking for it. Frankly the way Barcelona played in the first half an hour was pure artistry and you`ll notice that there was not an ounce of begrudging in Wenger`s pre match assessment of his opponents. I have to be frank, I almost enjoyed it. The way they moved the ball was akin to watching a slightly elongated five a side game, one touch, every player supremely assured on the ball, always a man to spare. Arsenal were chasing luminous yellow shadows and watching life from the other side of the fence as they were being bossed in possession. After just two minutes, Barca forced a corner, which Xavi swung in and Busquets forced a low diving save from Almunia. It was relentless, Messi, not deployed on the right as we had thought, but given a more central berth in Iniesta`s absence, dipped and swerved his body past two players from the left before unleashing a low shot which Almunia again beat out. The Gunners were thoroughly pinned back to the ropes, absorbing uppercut after uppercut, Pedro`s clever reverse ball in the area found Ibrahimovic with the goal in sight but Almunia spread himself to make another terrific stop.

At this point, Andrey Arshavin had to be removed from the action owing to a calf injury. That he was replaced by Eboue was instructive, he had more attacking options available, I think secretly, Wenger might have even been glad his hand had been forced into making that switch. That Arshavin was deployed on the right suggests the manager fully expected Messi to line up on the right for Barcelona. Arsenal briefly managed to wrest the ball away from Barcelona for just about long enough to create an opportunity of their own. Bendtner moved the ball to Nasri on the left and he curled an effort just wide of the far post. But the Gunners did identify a slight chink in Barcelona`s impressive armour in the joy Bendtner got over Carles Puyol in the air. Nasri sent over a left wing cross which confused Puyol and Busquets and Bendtner drove a shot against the post, though the linesman`s flag would have declared the goal erroneous anyway. Then came something of an Ian Wright moment circa 1994 when Fabregas was given a caution which results in suspension from the second leg. The rage is somewhat diluted this morning given that Cesc would not have been fit anyway, but the booking, in keeping with the referee`s display was an utter disgrace. Frankly, Barca were imperious enough without the referee`s ridiculous over officiousness any time a Barca player hit the deck. The Catalonian`s may have benefited from some dodgy refereeing at Stamford Bridge last season, but last night they really didn`t need it. At the half time whistle, the referee was roundly heckled and rightly so. Meanwhile, the supporters and the players must have been mulling over quite how we were still in the tie.

Having reached something of a check point at half time, twenty five seconds into the second half, Barca had their much deserved goal. Carles Puyol clipped a long pass into a sizeable gap between Vermaelen and Clichy, leaving Zlatan Ibrahimovic free to run onto the pass. Almunia made an error of judgement as he abdicated his area leaving Ibrahimovic to execute a delightful clip over the stranded keeper. Arsenal were stunned but kept on regardless, Gael Clichy stormed down the left and clipped an excellent cross into the box, Bendtner met it with a forceful header which Valdes beat out. Barcelona instantly countered and with Clichy stranded up field, Dani Alves motored metronomically down the right hand side and slung a pinpoint cross of his own into Xavi who headed the ball wide when he ought to have done better. But Barca had soon seemingly put the tie out of sight, in the build up, Guardiola actually had cause to utterly lose his rag with Dani Alves for a piece of showboating which had Pep on his feet and raging incandescently. Xavi played another pass into the channel, showing up Song and Vermaelen`s understandable lack of chemistry and Ibrahimovic smashed the ball into the roof of the net. The goal resembled Batistuta`s at Wembley a little over ten years ago. It`s ramifications felt much the same. Arsenal had been pinned to the ropes for much of the game, now they were scrawling on the canvas, their eyes half closed and their lip swollen and bloodied.

Wenger took one last throw of the dice, like a shirtless man on a Vegas roulette table. He threw Walcott on for Sagna. It reaped instant results. Bendtner, one of the few Arsenal players who did not have the look of a rabbit in the headlights, finally had an outlet and he used it to devastating effect. Nasri played the ball into the big Dane with his back to goal and Bendtner slipped the ball to the onrushing Walcott, who had already outstripped Maxwell for pace sixty seconds earlier. Theo guided the ball under the arm of Victor Valdes and into the net for a glimmer of a lifeline. Arsenal`s penchant for finishing games strongly in the humdrum Premiership stood them in good stead to crank up some pressure on weary Barcelona. Though Messi`s sojourn around Alex Song and into the Arsenal area nearly reaped a third goal but for a strong stop by Almunia. But with five minutes remaining, an even bigger lifeline was slung down the mountain face.

Walcott sent in a right wing cross which Bendtner showed great presence of mind to nod down to Fabregas in the six yard box. Puyol appeared to obstruct him and the referee had set a tone where every fall to the ground was a foul so a penalty was duly awarded along with a supplementary red card for the Barca captain. Fabregas stepped up to smash the penalty down the middle against his boyhood club. As he ran to retrieve the ball he pulled up in agony, barely able to walk. Fabregas spent the rest of the game hobbling as a passenger. One can only but admire his leadership in taking the pitch in that state. A lot of players might have started to worry about their World Cup fate and retired, but Cesc hobbled on. He symbolised the character in our fight back, like Rocky Balboa, it seems no matter how much of a beating this Arsenal side take, they keep dragging themselves up off the canvas and coming back for more. But since Cesc fears he may have broken his leg, you have to again question the competency of our medical department in allowing him to continue. There`s little doubt we were bossed and outclassed for large swathes of the match by a superb side. But our resilience in refusing to die is gutsy and admirable. Whatever else happens this season, this team have earned our respect, there`s steel in them there guts. We still face an uphill task in the Nou Camp, but staring at the mountain top from the bottom is a more enviable position than being six feet under the ground as we were with twenty minutes of the match remaining. Walcott`s pace and Bendtner`s aerial prowess revealed clinks in Barca`s armour and we would do well to show confidence in those traits in a week`s time. Me? I`m just glad that the trip to Barcelona is again more than just a tourist excursion. It`s been long debated which song Arsenal should emerge to for home games. This season, it appears Chumbawumba`s ‘Tubthumping` might be the most appropriate. The refrain, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you`re not ever gonna keep me down” is coming to characterise this team.LD.

1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA (14.Walcott `66), 10.GALLAS (15.Denilson `45), 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 2.DIABY, 4.FABREGAS©, 23.ARSHAVIN (27.Eboue `27), 8.NASRI, 52.BENDTNER. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 9.Eduardo, 21.Fabianski, 31.Campbell.