Arsenal 2 (Walcott 69, Fabregas pen 85) Barcelona 2 (Ibrahimovic 46, 59)
(Champions League Quarter Final 1st Leg)
What a game. What a recovery. What a display of mental strength.
Following the match by using a combination of Twitter and the BBC commentary was painful, but having finally finished my work trip I’ve managed to see the game, and what an extraordinary affair it was. From the manic early stages which could have ended the tie, to Barcelona getting the goals their display richly deserved, all the way through to a comeback that no-one could have foreseen.
I was preparing what I would write at 0-2, and it was along the lines of hoping we could just get past Wolves at the weekend, before getting everyone in shape for the trip to Spurs in two weeks time. But now, we have reason to believe that we can remain in the Champions League, not least because both of Barca’s centre backs will be suspended.
Of course, we were counting the cost of the game too. Gallas is probably out for the season with a recurrence of his calf injury, Cesc certainly is after breaking his leg (if he broke it winning the penalty, it makes the subsequent kick and his refusal to leave to field all the more heroic), and Arshavin will miss at least a few weeks with a calf injury of his own. Who knows what eleven we’ll be able to field on Tuesday night – just four days away.
I’m sure you all saw the match, and witnessed Almunia repeating his performance from Old Trafford last season in single handedly keeping us in the tie with a string of stunning saves. Interspersed with his acrobatics was a shocking miss by Ibrahimovic, who appeared to be having another one of his big-game failures. But early in the second half, he struck twice, and while Almunia has been criticised for the first, I can see why he felt the need to come out. But he got his angles wrong and the Swede punished him. For the second, Xavi was afforded far too much time to pick his pass. But you couldn’t argue with the scoreline at that point.
In between, Bendtner forced a fine save from Valdes, but it looked hopeless. Two goals down at home, it felt as flat as our capitulation against United in that semi-final. But unlike then, we had an ace up our sleeve. And that ace, surprisingly enough, was Theo Walcott.
Soon after coming on, Bendtner slipped him an inch perfect through ball, and he finished under Valdes, who probably could have done better but may have been taken by surprise bythe early shot. His pace was pinning Maxwell back, and shifting the momentum in our favour, and the comeback was completed from the penalty spot, after Cesc’s shooting leg collided with Puyol (again after a Bendtner assist). The decision may have been debatable, the sending off certainly so, but our captain needed no second invitation to lash the spot kick home and leave us rubbing our eyes in disbelief.
Having seen the incident many times, I suspect Cesc might have damaged his leg in the act of taking the penalty. The prior kick, and the one at Birmingham, may have weakened it, but if you watch him take the shot again, he lands on his right leg at an unpleasant angle, which may have resulted in the weakness finally caving in.
Some questioned his appointment as captain nearly two years ago, but although he was already a fine player, he has proven his leadership credentials time and time again this season, dragging the side towards the finish line with no apparent regard for his own health. His thoughts have not been on the World Cup, he has played through pain, strained already aching muscles, and set an example that the rest would do well to follow. We can only hope that he has one remaining act this season – lifting a trophy.
It will be immensely difficult given the insane nature of our injury crisis. Ironically, having spent most of the campaign with a packed treatment table, the problem seemed to be easing. But once again, you could name a full team of absentees, and no side can withstand losses the the degree we have. One can only imagine where we would be if we had a little more luck in that regard.
You could argue that Wenger has taken a few risks, bringing back Cesc and Gallas too early, but those are risks I think any of us would want him to take. And it says a lot about the spirit of the players that they don’t want to rest up, they want to get out there and win something for the club.
More than ever, I think this club is heading powerfully in the right direction. I know we always talk about ‘next season’, but can you imagine how dangerous we could be without even half the serious injuries?
That is for another time, because thanks to a stirring comeback, we are still in the Champions League. And if results go our way tomorrow (essentially, we don’t want Chelsea to win), we would still be in the Premiership race. We might be hobbling towards the line, but if sheer will to succeed can be enough, we might yet get there. Either way, you have to be impressed.
Tomorrow, we simply have to get three points against Wolves. More on that game in the morning.