“Arsenal’s Champions League dreams were in tatters last night after Barcelona ruthlessly tore them apart in a display worthy of the best team in generations. The warning signs were there early on, but when Van Persie’s shot was well saved by Valdes you sensed that such chances needed to be taken. The worry was proved accurate minutes later when Villa released Messi after good interplay. Szczesny came out and delayed committing until the last moment, but Messi dinked the ball over him at the last second, and despite Koscielny’s chase, the ball nestled into the corner.
Soon after it was two, with Messi returning the favour to Villa, playing him through before the Spaniard fired underneath Szczesny. The Pole kept Arsenal in it with good saves from Pedro, but two goals down at the break was the nightmare scenario for the home side. It was to get worse – Eboue gave the ball away and Messi was played through again. Arsenal’s nemesis again finished in style, just inside the near post. 3-0 and the tie was as good as over.
The home fans began to get restless, and focused some of their ire on their stars, Van Persie bearing the brunt when his ridiculous effort from the tightest of angles was easily fielded by Valdes, covering his near post well. Arsenal did get a consolation, the best goal of the night so far, Arshavin finishing a sweeping move, but the celebrations were muted.
The Russian quickly went from hero to villain, however, when his weak back header rebounded off his arm. The penalty award was harsh, but it finally killed the tie. 4-1 to the visitors and Arsenal’s Champions League dreams were over.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for one second that we were lucky on Wednesday night. Both teams missed chances, and that we came away with a positive result was due to our resilience and a pair of stunning goals in the second half, taking advantage of a Barcelona side unable to sustain their level for ninety minutes. What I am trying to point out is that football runs on the tightest of tightropes – sometimes the marginal incidents sway massively towards one team, and it has an enormous impact on how we view the abilities of the two teams. On Wednesday, there wasn’t such a sway, but there could have been, and the reaction would have been horrific.
And it works both ways – by all accounts Barcelona ripped us to shreds in the Nou Camp last season. But it was out of their control that Diaby missed a glorious chance to play the pass that could easily have led to us taking a two goal lead, and Messi had one of those freakish evenings where everything he tried came off. Exactly as in the above scenario, everything marginal went for them. We’d view that tie very differently had we had more luck, or not messed up the critical moments.
But imagine the above report was the one we’d all woken up to on Thursday morning. What do you think the reaction would have been? I’ll save you the bother – calls for Wenger’s head, claims that his youth project has failed, that we could never match Barcelona at their own game, that Cesc, Wilshere and many more would leave in the summer, that our season would disintegrate to the point where our trophy drought would continue and the club would unravel.
While that sounds ridiculous, it is sadly the way many react to a single setback. We could have been hammered on Wednesday had Barcelona taken their chances, alternatively we could have been in an even better position had Van Persie’s trusty left foot not missed two first half chances. As I said, football at this level can sway from one extreme to the other based on incredibly fine lines. It is the same reason one team can hammer another 6-0 in the league one week, only to get knocked out of the cup by the same opposition a week later. Did one side improve dramatically in a week? Or course not – sometimes things go for you, sometimes they don’t.
Cup football is often called a lottery, and this is why – on any given day, everything can go against you, and you can be knocked out. Remember the Leeds goal in the recent cup replay? It was an absolute screamer that neither our defence or Szczesny could do anything about. Now imagine that happening three times in a match – chances are, you’ll lose, and despite the fact there would be many recriminations, the reality it simply that it would be one of those things. Shit happens, to put it another way.
Over the course of a season, these things start to balance, which is why a team’s true ability can be gleaned from their league position. But cup football is a different animal, as is any individual match.
Food for thought next time we lose a game. We can point fingers as much as we like (because you’ll always be able to pick an underperforming player out of eleven, win or lose), we can claim that X should be sold or Y should be dropped, but what cannot be denied is that we are an excellent team. We’re not in all four competitions by accident, we’re not providing a genuine title tilt by fluke, and we didn’t beat a Barcelona team who played at the highest standard because everything went our way.
Undoubtedly there will be a match between now and the end of the season where everything goes against us – a stunning goal, a dodgy penalty, woodwork denying us, that sort of thing. That’s football. All I ask is that when it happens, we don’t start thinking we’re crap, dissecting Wenger’s transfer policy, or start calling it the demise of the football club. It’ll be a defeat. That’s all.
Perspective is hard to come by in football, from fans to the chairmen with itchy trigger fingers. That comes from passion, which can be fantastic in itself – witness the atmosphere on Wednesday if you doubt that. But misplaced, it can be hugely destructive – players getting abuse on Twitter, reading their own fans turning on them (make no mistakes, many players do read blogs), and that can turn a single defeat into a disaster.
This could be a stunning season if we stay united, recreate Wednesday’s electrifying atmosphere, and stick with the players along the bumpy road. Let’s do it.