Life has changed for us Arsenal fans in the 29 years I’ve been going.
Before the game today, I was handed my ticket for the Cup Final in 10 days time. I had a brief look at it to see where we were sitting, put it in my pocket and resumed our chat about the match we were about to witness. That’s not to say that the Carling Cup Final is being taken for granted by anyone associated with this website – most definitely not. It’s just that we were about to play Barcelona.
Having been present at Wembley 12 years ago when they put 4 past us and in Paris in 2006 when Sol’s header was not quite enough, I missed last season’s encounter as my travels took me to Argentina where I “watched” the game on the BBC Website’s text commentary. I have always wanted to see us play Barcelona at home so the anticipation for this one was tangible.
I must have checked my pocket to ensure that I had my season ticket about 10 or times on the bus to work alone, let alone the various panics that occurred during the day. Given my nerves at the thought of it, I am so glad this was the first leg and not the second or I might not have made it to the ground.
Prior to the game, I was convinced I’d seen Xavi wandering out of the cafe we usually eat in on Blackstock Road before the game, having stuffed his face with eggs, chips and beans. This could well have helped our cause.
Still, the presence of flags tucked into our seats before we arrived only served to remind me of my last Champions League game – one which had a similar atmosphere prior to kick-off and was similarly anticipated – and one (United, two years ago) whose excitement lasted precisely 11 minutes before Park and Ronaldo finished us off. This match had to last longer than that, so I ignored my flag and let it drop onto the floor as I tipped up the seat.
After a good start during which Walcott gave poor old Maxwell the fright of his life by sprinting at full speed towards the retreating left back, we seemed to lose our way a little in midfield and the Catalans took control. Wilshere was looking lost at times and Nasri, never as effective on the wing as he is in the centre, was anonymous.
Both teams defended extremely high up the pitch which would prove to be an important factor as the game wore on and provided Barcelona countless chances in the first half, as they repeatedly sprung the offside trap and found themselves through on goal, Messi messing up the easiest chance early on as he hesitated before trying to beat Szczesny, causing his chip to dribble wide.
Eventually they managed to put one away, however – David Villa slotting past the keeper to put them 1-0 up.
After this, we looked a little stunned and Nasri’s lack of defensive cover for Clichy was beginning to irritate the crowd. Alves had hardly got forward at all for the first 20 minutes but was now camped in our half and poor old Gael was sprinting around like a headless chicken trying to deal with him and Pedro. Fortunately, no more goals came and we went in 1-0 down.
Discussions at half time centred on whether, given the quality of the opposition, 1-0 wasn’t such a bad result to take to their place. It was hard to imagine they wouldn’t score again though.
They didn’t score again and for that, we must all give a huge thanks to Laurent Koscielny who was absolutely superb last night. The biggest compliment you can give him is that the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, produced little or nothing in the second half. Koscielny stuck to him like glue, was strong when he needed to be and forced Messi out of the penalty area and away from goal on countless occasions.
Our equaliser seemed to come soon after Walcott was replaced by Bendtner but the goal owed nothing to either Walcott’s absence or Bendtner’s presence. When Clichy chipped the ball through to Van Persie, I think even the Barcelona fans will have forgiven Valdes for thinking that RVP was going to square it. He was, after all, virtually standing on the byline. However, Robin decided to shoot instead and leathered the ball in at the near post. Incredible. Watching it on the highlights later, it looked like RVP was quite bowled over by the reaction of the crowd which is appropriate because it was pandemonium. How he forced it in with such pace from there is beyond me. You could have placed the ball on the ground from where he hit it, removed the goalkeeper and all the defenders and asked me to pass it into the net and I’d have struggled to hit the target. Still, I suppose that’s more of a comment on my footballing abilities than our number 11. Commentary on RVP’s equaliser
Suddenly the game changed. No longer could Alves get to our penalty area unchallenged – he was too busy desperately repelling Arsenal attacks on his own goal. No longer could the three World Cup winners in the Barcelona midfield find space to play the ball in their own time – they were too busy panicking under the pressure of the rampant Jack Wilshere, a man barely half my age who looks stronger, fitter and, dare I say, better (ahem) than Cesc Fabregas at the same age.
At this point, it would have been a surprise if we hadn’t gone on and scored another one but there was to be no surprise. After a Barcelona attack in which their 4 strikers weren’t good enough to beat our 4 defenders, Koscielny played the ball to Bendtner. He gave it to Wilshere, who in turn played it to Fabregas. Cesc instantly spotted that Barce’s defensive line was virtually on the halfway line, as had been the case all game long, and played Nasri in behind. The noise from the crowd was probably louder than it was after either of the two goals at home to Wolves on Saturday. Nasri was in a decent enough position for a shot but chose, in true Arsenal fashion, to stop and square it. To Andrei Arshavin. A man who until 2 weeks ago could barely strike a ball within 40 degrees of where he’d intended. His first time shot curled around the last defender and into the back of the net. Beautiful. Fantastic. Amazing. TV replays later showed that Andrei, who put his shirt over his head in celebration, had a T-shirt with a picture of him celebrating a goal underneath but none of us in the stands saw any of this at the time. If the equaliser was pandemonium, they haven’t invented a word for the reaction to the second. Commentary on Arshavin’s winner
Minutes later, and only after Bendtner should have helped make it 3 if it wasn’t for a selfish effort at the near post, the final whistle went and we’d beaten Barcelona. Almost everyone in the crowd stayed to applaud the players off the pitch, understandably. Everyone who took part last night were outstanding and, in the final quarter of the game, even Eboue stopped making mistakes. Special mentions (again) to Koscielny and Wilshere but also to Szczesny for some superb decision-making at crucial times and Gael Clichy for some Herculean efforts to not only repel Barcelona attacks but get forward too, including a superb right-footed pass to RVP for the equaliser.
Tonight was fantastic and will never be forgotten. Our first really big night at the (not so) new stadium, at long last. It doesn’t matter that it’s only the first leg and we’ve conceded an away goal. We deserved to win tonight. Brilliant. Just brilliant.