Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Arsenal's Season In Tatters After Barcelona Loss

Barcelona celebrateIn a game that will no doubt be remembered for  Europe's most high profile refereeing gaffe of the season, Arsene Wenger saw his young side come undone at the Nou Camp.

The seeds of this disappointment were, in all honesty, sewn, not by a Swiss referee, nor by a brilliant Argentinian, but by Arsenal's fatal lack of concentration and discipline in the latter stages of the group phase. Had Arsenal delivered in away matches against Shakhtar Donetsk and Sporting Braga, they would have found themselves playing AS Roma in the Round of Sixteen, not Barca.

However, as it transpired, the Arsenal players seemed more then capable of taking out the Catalan giants, and a 2-1 success at The Emirates offered much hope to Arsenal fans and players alike. Despite that lead, all involved with The Gunners knew of the difficulties lying ahead in what would surely be an absorbing tie in Barcelona. And, with Van Persie and Fabregas both fit to start, Arsene Wenger must have seen this match as an ideal opportunity to catch out a Barcelona defense shorn of key defensive duo Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol.

But once again it was concentration which let the Gunners down as, just seconds before the half time interval, a foolish Fabregas back heel on the edge of the Arsenal penalty allowed Iniesta to lay the ball on for an onrushing Messi, who simply doesn't miss when presented a chance inside the six yard box.

For all Arsenal's talk of bad luck, probably the most fortuitous play of the game occurred ten minutes into the second half, when Sergio Busquets headed past his own keeper, gifting Arsenal a vital away goal. With that goal intact and The Gunners defending stoutly, Arsenal fans must have sensed that their chances of progression had hugely increased, only to be harshly disappointed by the events of the next few minutes.

Already on a yellow card, Robin Van Persie raced through a goal and, having not heard the whistle blown for offside, scuffed a right footed shot into the side netting. With the Barcelona fans still cheering in amusement following Van Persie's miss, referee Busaca made a decision that would come to define the tie. Interpreting Van Persie's shot as an attempt to run down the clock, the Swiss official presented Arsenal's number 11 with his second yellow card of the game, and the subsequent red. With Van Persie violently gesticulating towards the crowd, and other Gunners players continuing their own, totally superfluous, protests, the Barca fans cries of amusement turned to ones of raucous celebration, cheers that were to go up another decibel level when Xavi Hernandez leveled the tie minutes later.

Still rocking, Arsenal's collapse was short and swift. No sooner had the thought of possible extra time and penalties crossed the mind of  Arsene Wenger and his team, Arsenal were 3-1 down, Messi converting from the penalty spot after Pedro was upended in the area. Following the goal, fifteen minutes of pergatory, as Barcelona taunted the North London side with their cute, sharp passing. Despite knowing that they only needed one more goal to win the tie, the Arsenal players never really looked like scoring, even when Nicklas Bendtner was presented with a clear opportunity on eighty-eight minutes.

As the final whistle blew, and 10 fatigued Arsenal players trudged off the playing field, one would have been entitled to wonder whether this defeat spelled the end of Arsenal's season. Having lost in the Carling Cup final ten days before, and dropped points at home to Sunderland the weekend after, this loss continued a miserable run of form, started, arguably, by their fantastic 2-1 first leg win in London. If Arsenal once again find themselves on the losing side at Old Trafford on Saturday, one wonders whether they will have the spirit left in them, to bounce back from such a demoralizing two weeks.

On the other hand, Barcelona will see their three-one success as just another stepping stone on the path to glory. With a place in the Copa Del Rey final secured, a seven point lead in the league over Real Madrid looking imperturbable, and a quarter final berth in the Champions League guaranteed, Pep Guardiola's men will fancy their chances at a second treble in three seasons. If, and it is a big "if," Barcelona do win thier second treble, then they may well take their place atop of Sacchi's Milan and the "dream team" of the early 1990s, and onto the highest pedestal in all of Europe, one on which they may rest for many years to come.

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