Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona: Fabregas' Penalty Gives Gunners a Chance For Return Leg

Cesc Fabregas and Arsenal fought their way back from the dead against Barcelona tonight to earn a 2-2 draw at the Emirates after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had given the visitors a seemingly comfortable two goal lead.
Barca came to the North London for the first leg of this Champions League Quarter-Final, and for 60 minutes handed Arsenal a lesson in football that they will never forget. But the match lasts for 90, and the Gunners fought their way back to earn a hugely creditable 2-2 draw.

Such was the gulf in class between the two sides, in the first half, Manuel Almunia was forced to produce five outstanding saves in the first 15 minutes alone while Alex Song had to clear from his own line twice. It would be no exaggeration to have seen Barcelona four up by the twenty minute mark and the Emirates half empty.
Barca were simply brilliant. Not only was their passing crisp, incisive, and penetrative, they closed the shell-shocked Gunners down as soon as one of their punch drunk players gained possession. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger just did not know what had hit them.
Samir Nasri produced Arsenal's only real shot on goal in the first half on the 22nd minute, such was the team in yellow's dominance.
With midfield completely conceded, Cesc Fabregas became a peripheral figure and Alex Song was reduced to kicking out at shadows as Xavi and Busquets gave the Gunners duo a real lesson.
Both players only real contributions to the first half were two yellow cards as the Gunners tried to take a leaf out of the lesser lights in the Premiership's books and strong-arm their way into the game.
There was going to be a big question mark hanging over Fabregas for the rest of the match after he picked up his booking. Would he have a Roy Keane like mentality and let it wash off like tears in the rain and drive his team to glory? Or would he go through the motions with the rest of his team who had frozen, once again, on the big occasion.
The only real mystery from the opening 45 minutes was how the score was still 0-0. Lionel Messi, Ibrahimovic, Xavi, and Busquets had all brought the best from Almunia and Arsene Wenger breathed a huge sigh of relief as the halftime whistle blew.
Everything that could possibly have gone wrong, had. His team were reduced to little more than cameo entertainers, poor ones at that. Two of his most influential players, Gallas and Arshavin, had gone off injured. And Cesc Fabregas had been ruled out of the return leg and picking up that booking, meaning that the ex-Barca youth will not get his chance to make his debut at the Camp Nou, this season...
The 15 minute break at half time made little difference as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the opener for Barcelona after just 46 seconds.
The Swedish striker made a simple five yard run to the side and Song failed to follow him, that gap was all he needed as he raced onto Pique's through ball to lob Almunia.
The 'keepers decision to come out and then stop was questionable to say the least but the chance would have never happened if Song had of done his job instead of playing the percentages.
After going 1-0 up, Barcelona did not make the same mistake as Manchester United the night before and Pep Guardiola's men went in search of the second. However, that would change when they went 2-0 up...
The second came 15 minutes later and was a carbon copy of the first. The same simple run from Ibrahimovic, Song failing to mark, Xavi slipping the ball through, and the Swedish striker getting his and Barca's second, his fifth goal in four games.
Barcelona with two away goals to the good was going to be an Everest for this Gunners team to climb on tonight's showing and Wenger had to act if his team was to have any chance of an unlikely progression to the semi finals.
Theo Walcott was introduced and almost instantly, Arsenal were back in the game. The nippy winger latched onto Bendtner's through ball and fired past the on-form Victor Valdes to give his team some hope.
Arsenal then enjoyed their best phase of the match, dominating for five minutes, but the closest they came to drawing level was a Fabregas free kick that sailed high and wide. Gerard Pique picking up a yellow card that also ruled him out of the return leg.
As the Gunners began to edge back into the game, one had to wonder if Barcelona's mind was, un-wisely, on the return leg.
Their bravery was rewarded when Cesc Fabregas equalized from the spot after Carlos Puyol had been harshly adjudged to have taken down the Gunners captain, and received a ridiculous red card into the bargain.
Theo Walcott's cross had taken a fortunate deflection that caused the ball to loop high over the Barca defence. As Fabregas shaped up to volley home, he actually kicked Puyol who was behind him and the referee awarded the penalty.
It was an incredible turn around for Arsenal who were dead and buried at 2-0 down after 60 minutes. While Barcelona undoubtedly took their foot off the pedal, Arsene Wenger's men deserve huge credit for forcing their way back into the tie when it looked as if all hope was lost.
Arsenal were dreadful on the night and only had six shots on goal to Barcelona's 22. Their route back into the match deserves credit, but it has as much to do with Barcelona switching off, and Arsenal's questionable character coming to the fore when the game was over.
Had Arsenal's minds really been on the game they would have shown more in the first 60 minutes than they did. And with the game over, the pressure was relieved and many of Arsenal's players then decided to play.
Had they put a fraction of the effort into the first 60 minutes that they did in the last 30, the game would have taken a different complexion.
This tie was a huge one for Arsenal, and in many ways it has shown that they are still a work in progress. Tonight they lacked a moral courage to bring the game to Barcelona.
There has been much talk in the lead up to tonight's game on how Arsenal were a European team in an English league and of how they were every bit Barcelona's equal.
On this evidence, they fall short of that kind of level and a little more than a Barcelona "Light" despite all their good football.
Saying that, if Arsene Wenger can get his team fired up, they will have an outside chance of going through to the semi finals. They will have to show a belief and courage that was lacking tonight because one would guess that Barcelona will not make the same mistake twice.