IT was 2009 before Barcelona were finally able to say they had won more European Cups than Nottingham Forest. For all its artistry and rhetoric Catalonia had not been a regular destination for club football’s grandest prize before the victory over Manchester United in Rome pushed Barcelona one ahead of Brian Clough.
The problem with sporting the first three home in the race for the Fifa Ballon d’Or is that it renders Champions League domination more or less obligatory. That strain may be deeper than we knew. Against an Arsenal side who refused to play the assigned role of dazzled spectator Barcelona took the lead through David Villa but then lost it to goals by Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin. A 1-0 home victory in the return leg would send them on their merry way but suddenly the rest of football is resisting.
“You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s jubilant manager. Out there on the frontier the Gunners held on, asserting their maturity and capitalising on Barcelona’s inability to convert more than one of their many chances. Pep Guardiola, Wenger’s counterpart, for all his talent, has yet to win a Champions League knockout match away from home.
“We controlled the game but we know they play very well positionally. They are very quick on the counter-attack. They’re a very good team,” Guardiola said of Arsenal. “We just need to convert those chances. It’s the most difficult thing to do. In general I’m happy with the performance. The result is the thing I don’t like.”
Still hanging over this Barcelona ensemble is the memory of their failure to break down Internazionale’s defensive block in last year’s semi-finals. This defeat will sharpen the sense that greater dangers lurk beyond Spain’s borders. Technically Barcelona are not the best side in Europe, never mind “the world”, as their president, Sandro Rosell, bragged recently. The continental title belongs to Inter until Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi (Fifa’s 1-2-3) can take it back off them.
Thus a last-16 first leg with the English xerox known as Arsenal was freighted with extra tension for the side dressed in operating theatre green. The last song they would want to hear in May is Elvis Costello’s All This Useless Beauty.
Barça had never lost to Arsenal in Champions League action but they feared the enterprise and thrust of Wenger’s men. The Gunners, said Guardiola, were a team for watching, not playing against. This sounded charitable when Messi combined with Villa to put himself in an ideal chipping position on the right edge of Wojciech Szczesny’s six-yard box. To his own bafflement Messi scooped the ball past the right-hand post. His exasperation spoke of an inability to believe the ball had disobeyed him. After 43 goals in 39 games for club and country this season alone, Messi shoots with a sense of destiny.
From the side who drew 2-2 here 11 months ago, Eric Abidal replaced the injured Carles Puyol, Iniésta reclaimed his place from Seydou Keita and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been shipped out in favour of Villa. In other words this was a stronger Barça starting XI. Yet this was to be no beauty parade for the hot tournament favourites. It was a night of industry, of toil. After the interval Arsenal were too eager and ambitious to allow Barcelona their usual scintillating rhythms. Guardiola’s men were forced into a more frantic contest.
Messi, the destroyer of all worlds, endured one of those nights when the faintest imprecisions spoil a beautiful thought. After the dud chip he bundled the ball in with his head but was judged offside. After the break he clipped one into the side-netting. Not for the first time he dipped his head and cursed in frustration.
With Villa’s withdrawal on 69 minutes in favour of Keita, Messi took up centre-forward duties. Overall English clubs have a decent record of squeezing The Flea’s freedom, but you can never bet against the dramatic break-out. The best example was at the Camp Nou, on April 6 last year, when Nicklas Bendtner impertinently opened the scoring and Messi replied with a machine gun rattle of four.
What we learned about Barcelona was that they can adapt when a resolute opponent tries to dictate the shape of the game and denies them the usual liberty to entertain. They can play more than one way. But we saw vulnerability too, when Víctor Valdés stood so far off his near post for Van Persie’s tight-angled equaliser that a shopping trolley could have passed between the goalkeeper and the wood.
Minutes later Barça’s defence were opened up again, when Arshavin met Samir Nasri’s cross to give Arsenal the lead with seven minutes left. Messi tried to dribble a lone path through Arsenal’s defenders but was blocked every time.
Guardiola was in the Barcelona side who won the European Cup at the old Wembley in 1992. To be at the new one for this year’s final, 19 seasons on, they will have to shift an Arsenal who were never daunted, never Barcelona-lite. — Guardian.