Every seat full, an expectant crowd come to see the famous names of the opposition, and maybe cheer their own heroes on to a giant-killing. For New Meadow on Monday read the Emirates last night. Similarities between the stadia normally end with both being new builds, but the atmosphere in north London was akin to that in Shropshire 24 hours earlier, where Shrewsbury Town lost against Manchester United.
Arsenal are not plucky little Shrewsbury. Their turnover is £350m a year and they bank more in a match than the Shrews do in a season, but such is Barcelona’s reputation, form and history against the Gunners it felt like clash of unequals. That much was clear when, with only two minutes on the clock, Per Mertesacker rose to head clear a cross from Luis Suarez and a crowd more used to purring at passing issued a deep-throated roar of approval.
This is what it has come to for English clubs in Europe. We are the wealthy underdogs. Our mid-ranking clubs can lure stars such as Dmitri Payet, Yohann Cabaye and Andre Ayew across the Channel, but the supernovas, players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Barcelona’s feted Latin American front three, Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar, prefer the Continental lifestyle.
They can all do it on a wet November night in Stoke, or Wearside or Humberside, if they have to, but they don’t want to have to do it week-in, week-out, for nine months.
So they play in La Liga and Lique 1, where the weather is better and their clubs’ domestic superiority means most matches are done-and-dusted in an hour and they can conserve energy for the Champions League – and their international teams.
When they come here, as Arsenal’s Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez have, it is because Real Madrid or Barca no longer want them.
Wenger is notorious for concentrating on his own team rather than the opposition but Arsenal had been drilled on London Colney’s manicured pitches this last week or two, in an effort to bridge the quality gap. When Marc-Andre ter Stegen took a goal-kick, three Arsenal forwards stood sentry on the 18-yard box, forcing the German to kick long – a 50-50 ball – rather than let Barcelona build from the back.
When the holders had possession higher up the pitch – which was most of the time – Arsenal zoned up like a basketball side. Central midfield was ceded to the Catalans, the back four patrolled in the space in front of the penalty area, the midfield and Olivier Giroud screened in front, seeking to intercept rather than waste energy chasing the ball.
And when possession was won, Sanchez, Oxlade Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Özil sought to counter-attack at pace. It was, in many respects, the same game-plan Steve Bruce adopted in the later stages of Saturday’s FA Cup tie.
This almost brought success in the opening half. Had Özil, freed by Ramsey’s clever backheel, been as precise with his return pass the Welshman night have put Arsenal ahead early on.
Midway through the half Oxlade-Chamberlain should have done so after better work by Özil but he could not get the ball out from under his feet and scuffed his shot.
The young Englishman had been preferred to Walcott, presumably for his greater midfield drive and defensive solidity, but had a ‘nearly’ night.
Not long after this squandered opportunity he broke clear on the right, tearing down the flank like a runaway train, but unfortunately showing a touch to match which allowed Javier Mascherano to make a crucial interception as Giroud and Özil waited in vain for a cross. This lack of finesse contrasted with the sure feet of Lionel Messi and Neymar as they sought to trick their way through the more congested Arsenal defence.
Faced with that blanket, Barcelona’s forwards had swapped positions and dropped off into those pockets of space between the lines. If Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic could thread a pass through the cover they would look to turn and wriggle through the back line, or achieve the same result by their swift interchange of passes.
Resisting this required intense concentration, good communication and positional discipline. For much of the time Arsenal managed all these virtues but the likes of Messi cannot always be shackled and Francois Coquelin was lucky not to be booked for tugging the Argentine back by his sleeve.
As the half wore on the pressure grew but, with reassured by the calming presence of Petr Cech behind them Arsenal held firm to the break.
Parity gave them a platform for belief. Earlier this season Arsenal were far more comprehensively outplayed here in the opening 45 minutes against by Bayern Munich yet finished winners. That confidence was soon tested as Barcelona began to find gaps with Neymar, Messi and Suarez all threatening. Yet Arsenal had chances too and the feeling grew that Barcelona, their players rarely rested and unused to playing at this intensity for so long, were tiring. Maybe that aspect of the game that persuades them to play in Catalonia rather than Manchester would be their undoing.
Instead Arsenal’s growing belief proved their Achilles heel. With 20 minutes to go they committed players forward, teased upfield by a sustained period of attack. With the ramparts unmanned Barcelona broke out to devastating effect to plunder an vital away goal.
A second followed and while there are 90 minutes still to go in the return leg at the Nou Camp, it seems Arsenal’s ambitions will soon be taking on a strictly local hue.Reuse content