What a game. What a night. For an hour it was difficult to understand how any team in the world could live with Barcelona, but through sheer resilience and refusal to give in, we hung in and eventually wore them down, before scoring two brilliant goals to turn the tie around. In the first half Barcelona were at their mesmerising best, and despite not being able to fault a single Arsenal performance, we were playing the apprentice role predicted before the contest. But in the second, it was Barcelona who tired, contrary to popular belief that the side chasing the ball for longer periods would be the one to collapse in exhaustion.
Perhaps that isn’t surprising – almost all Barcelona’s games are over by the hour mark, so they’ve never had to maintain that intensity for ninety minutes. Their style requires extreme fitness, and they were unable to sustain it. It is a testament to our fitness that despite giving up more possession than in any other match in recent times, we finished the stronger.
As for the goals, they were something to behold. Valdes was certainly at fault for Van Persie’s equaliser, beaten at his near post from an impossible angle, but to focus solely on that does Van Persie a massive disservice – only extreme power and precision made that goal possible, and his recent form was required to give him the confidence to attempt such an audacious effort.
If that was good, the winner was astonishing. One minute Barcelona were outnumbering us on the edge of our own box, but three sublime passes later Nasri was racing down the wing, before cutting inside and laying the perfect ball inside to Arshavin, whose pass-finish from the edge of the area was Pire-esque. High praise indeed.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow match report – I imagine that every single one watched the match, soaking in every last detail. Instead, I want to focus on ten points that made the night so special.
1. The best team in the world came to town, and played at their scorching best. Despite all of that, they lost. Say what you like about their control of possession and their chances – they certainly could have scored more, particularly if Messi had not misplaced his shooting boots. But it takes more than luck to beat the best side in a generation when they are playing at that level. It takes something special just to avoid a hammering, let alone triumph. Whatever happens in the Nou Camp, this was the finest night the Emirates has seen.
2. It was also the loudest the Emirates has ever been – a remarkable atmosphere, contrary to the stereotypical Arsenal home game. Each of the players has acknowledged the extraordinary support they received – it was spine-tingling at times. When Arshavin completed that special move for the winner, the place erupted.
3. Every criticism laid at the door of this team was countered. Apparently we have no mental strength, no keeper, no centre halves and no leader. Nonsense. Fragile teams would have got hammered, Szczesny made crucial saves and never looked out of place despite it being the toughest of European debuts, Koscielny was simply remarkable at centre half and there were leaders all over the pitch. Everyone stood up to be counted. Alan Hansen, eat your heart out, you cliché-ridden monstrosity.
4. Jack Wilshere is the finest English talent in years, certainly from a technical standpoint – when was the last time you saw an English player so comfortable with the ball in tight spaces? Just as a quick reminder – he is 19 years old. A remarkable performance from a man rightly receiving plaudits in Spain today, he destroyed and created, never taking more touches than he needed to. A special talent, and as pointed out at Gunnerblog, he is Arsenal through and through.
5. Our fears about Eboue were misplaced. I’ve seen quite a bit of criticism of the Ivorian today, but I must have been watching a different game. He gave the ball away sloppily a couple of times, but that is to be expected of a player in and out of the side under this kind of pressure. Overall, I thought he handled himself very well, and Barcelona were unable to create much down his flank.
6. Robin Van Persie is one of the best strikers in the world, and would be recognised as such if he wasn’t forever injured. Last season he played twenty games, and was directly involved (scored or assisted) in eighteen goals. After last night’s equaliser, he has the same superb record this campaign. He is in stunning form, he has matured into a leader on and off the pitch, and crucially, he is fit. If that stays the case until May, we should lift something.
7. Szczesny could be Arsenal number one for the next twelve years. A year ago he was on loan at Brentford, six months ago he was clearly unhappy with his position at the club, watching Almunia and Fabianski given repeated chances and not even knowing whether he was ahead of Mannone in the pecking order. Now, he is surely first choice even when Fabianski returns, and despite a baptism of fire (Premiership debut against United, European debut against Barcelona), nothing fazes him. Popular amongst the players, it is easy to forget he is 20 years old. A baby in goalkeeping terms.
8. The age of these players is remarkable – 20, 25, 25, 24, 27, 23, 23, 19, 23, 21, 27. Read that again. Eboue and Van Persie, at 27, were the oldest members of a team that just stood toe to toe with the best side in the world and triumphed. Six of them are 23 or under. Not a single one of them has reached their peak yet. Let the thought of what could be make you smile.
9. Despite what Chris Waddle says, Theo Walcott has a football brain. Last night he caused Barcelona problems early on, but perhaps more importantly he gave fantastic support to Eboue on the flank, chasing and harrying time and time again in what was a very disciplined performance. Also, if he was mentally weak, you would expect him to go to pieces in the big games, but he is the complete opposite. His first goal for Arsenal was in the Carling Cup final, he went on that mazy run against Liverpool in the Champions League, turned the first leg of the Barcelona tie around last season, and was superb against Chelsea before Christmas. He is a big game player.
10. We’ve got Cesc Fabregas, complete with fist-pumping determination at the final whistle – he is ours, and he is proud to be ours.
I still haven’t come down from last night’s excitement. Anyone still wish we’d won our group?