Gunners cling to excuse after new humbling by Barcelona

Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate)

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The Independent Online

Waiting by the side of the pitch at the final whistle until every one of his players had passed him, Arsène Wenger finally came face-to-face with the Swiss referee upon whom he pinned the blame for yet another defeat at the Nou Camp. Their foreheads almost touched as they fulminated against each other and then passed out of view down the steps into the tunnel.

For Wenger, it was the story of another injustice, just as he and his team were on the brink of beating the great attacking ensemble of Barcelona upon whom their game is modelled. Robin van Persie, the man who was controversially sent off on 55 minutes, called the decision by Massimo Busacca "a betrayal" while Wenger said it was not the action of a man who understood football.

It would be wrong to say that Arsenal left the Nou Camp with nothing last night. They left with one crucial memento of another defeat at the hands of this ruthlessly brilliant attacking side. This time they left with an excuse.

It was that to which Wenger and his players were clinging as they were humbled again by Barcelona. Before Van Persie's red card they had been subjected to waves of attack. Afterwards, it was a torrent that they were powerless to resist but Wenger will go to his grave repeating what he said last night – that his team would have won the tie had Van Persie not been sent off.

There are plenty of us who would beg to differ. Although Arsenal had come back in the latter stages of the first leg at the Emirates 14 days earlier when Barça had tired, the task of coming back last night was simply too much for them. Arsenal hardly strung a meaningful passing sequence together. This was Barça at their frantic best and they deserved to win this tie, regardless of what Wenger saw as the injustice of Van Persie's red card.

Just like Jens Lehmann's red card against the same opposition in the 2006 Champions League final, last night's dismissal will be lamented by Wenger for years to come. But there is no shame in losing to Barça. They might not be the most gracious team in the world but they are certainly the best. For long periods of this game, Barça weaved passes around Wenger's players with mesmerising ease. Towards the end of the first half the possession count stood at 71 per cent to the home side, eventually averaging out at 69 per cent over the entire game. Wenger said his team would probably have around 40 per cent of the ball. They did not get near to that.

Despite that, there were some memorable performances in the Arsenal shirts, not least from Manuel Almunia, who came on as a replacement for the injured Wojciech Szczesny after he went off in the first half with a dislocated finger. Johan Djourou also played the game of his life and Jack Wilshere never hid from doing the difficult task of getting on the ball when Barça shirts flocked around him.

But even if you were to give Van Persie the benefit of the doubt for his much-contested second yellow card – dealt when he struck the ball wide of the Barça goal seconds after the referee whistled – then what to say about Laurent Koscielny? He gave away a penalty in the second half, from which Lionel Messi scored Barça's third, for which he should surely have been given a second yellow for tripping Pedro Rodriguez.

One way or another, it seems that Arsenal would have finished this game with 10 men. That it turned out to be in such contentious circumstances gives Wenger that sense of injustice that will burn within him forever. But the brutal truth is that Arsenal are just not as good as Barça. Who is? Arsenal needed to be at their very best last night and that could not be said of all their players. Certainly not Cesc Fabregas. He was poor and, substituted with a hamstring problem, is now a doubt for Saturday's FA Cup tie against Manchester United.

As for Nicklas Bendtner, he was given half a chance by Wilshere in the latter stages for a goal that would have won the tie for Arsenal on away goals. Instead of shooting, he hesitated and was tackled. And so another chance for Bendtner to live up to his billing was passed up. Wenger conceded that his team were "dominated" in the first half but then that was no more than he expected. His team played with what was basically a back six with Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky tucking in as auxiliary full-backs. They scarcely emerged from their own half and they conceded to Messi's first goal in time added on at the end of the first half.

Fabregas gave up possession with a silly back heel deep in his own half. Andres Iniesta threaded the ball into Messi's path and he flicked the ball over the diving Almunia before volleying it in at close range. It was a beautiful finish. They replayed it on the stadium screen at half-time and the Nou Camp ooh-ed and aah-ed at each showing as if they were watching a fireworks display.

As usual, Messi was brilliant but Pedro, Xavi and Iniesta were not too far behind. Their scurrying attacks were so difficult to anticipate. Most of Arsenal's best defensive work was seat-of-the-pants stuff, chiefly last-ditch tackles in the penalty area with Djourou making some of the best interventions.

It was bad-tempered, too. After one injury interruption that had necessitated Arsenal putting the ball out of play, Barça gave them only a throw-in deep in their own half rather than the traditional turning over of possession. Van Persie picked up his first booking for an ill-advised act of retribution on Dani Alves shortly before Messi scored the first.

The own goal scored by Sergio Busquets with seven minutes of the second half gone gave Arsenal hope. On a rare forage forward, Nasri did well to win a corner. Worried by Abou Diaby at the near post, Busquets was too heavy with his header and put it in his own net.

After the red card, Barça were unstoppable. Their second goal of the night came from Iniesta's ball through which was neatly finished by Xavi via a deflection off the lunging Bacary Sagna. Messi buried the penalty after Koscielny's foul. All Arsenal were left with was their sense of injustice.





Man of the match: Messi.

Match rating: 8/10.

Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).

Attendance: 95,000.



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