Barcelona 4 (Messi 21, 37, 42, 88) Arsenal 1 (Bendtner 19)
(Champions League Quarter Final 2nd Leg, agg 6-3)
It would be so easy after a heavy defeat to criticise the players who didn’t reach the high standards they are capable of, to belittle a referee who was conned by a number of dives (notably by Busquets and Alves), or to pick holes in the nature of the goals we conceded.
But that would be churlish. At the end of the day, we were beaten by the better team, a unit that exceeded their usual level (no mean feat), and a pair of players a cut above anyone else on the pitch – Xavi, who was sensational in midfield, never giving the ball away and always creating, and of course, Messi, who bagged all four goals in a devastating display of finishing.
To be outplayed by the best team in the world is no disgrace, particularly when you are missing so many first team starters. To run into a genius having one of those nights is just unlucky, and while we contributed to our own downfall at times, you have to wonder who could have stopped Barcelona tonight. In the end, we weren’t even close.
For each goal, you could pinpoint a mistake on our part, but that is the case with almost every strike in world football. What Barcelona do better than anyone is press when not in possession, giving the opposition absolutely no time on the ball. So relentless is their pressure that sooner or later a sloppy pass is played, and then they are so electric going forward that they can punish you ruthlessly.
But despite their brilliance and our status as heavy underdogs, we struck first – Walcott was sent through by Diaby, and instead of shooting squared it behind Bendtner. At that point, I thought the chance had gone, but when the Dane’s initial shot was saved, he reacted quickest to prod us ahead. Game on, it seemed at the time.
Unfortunately, Barcelona had more gears, and just a few minutes later, Messi’s attempted pass was deflected back to him, and he lashed an unstoppable drive from just outside the area, with Vermaelen desperately lunging to block.
By half time, he had his hattrick – his second coming courtesy of a late run into the box after setting Abidal away, and the third an audacious chip over Almunia after our defence had been caught upfield. I felt for Almunia at this point – he had narrowed the angle, and knowing Messi likes to dink the ball, he stayed upright. Messi simply dinked it higher.
That was the killer blow, and although we had chances in the second half to reduce the deficit, it was no surprise when Messi added a fourth late on. Again, Almunia was unlucky – he saved the first shot, before being nutmegged by the second.
Half the team played very well – Almunia, Clichy, Vermaelen (mostly), Diaby (at times), Bendtner and Denilson had good games, while on the flip side, Rosicky and Silvestre struggled, both being withdrawn in the second half. Nasri looked good early on but never seemed to recover from a heavy early tackle.
But we had no-one to match the remarkable brilliance of Xavi and Messi. The only players we have that are capable of destroying opposition in that manner are on the treatment table. That isn’t an excuse – there are no guarantees that a fully fit squad would have triumphed.
At the end of the day, we have to hold our hands up and admit we were second best. Wenger has, Bendtner has and we must too. At the same time, we should draw immense confidence from the fact that even with twenty minutes left of a tie with the best team in the world, our patched up team were not giving up the hope of recovery. Many will learn from this.
We now have a week to recover before playing Spurs next Wednesday night. That should allow the players to rest, refocus, get over this disappointment and move forward. The season is not over.
Onward. And congratulations Barcelona.