James Lawton: Gunners must learn to believe again

Are Arsenal ever going to graduate beyond the lovely pastures of mere promise?
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The Independent Football

It is no time to bury Arsène Wenger and still less his most brilliant lieutenant, Cesc Fabregas, especially so soon after their rejection of the death warrant Barcelona so sleekly brought along to the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.

That Fabregas was so instrumental in an astonishing comeback, despite the handicap of injury and the bone-deep disappointment of finding himself suspended from what might have been a glorious homecoming at the Nou Camp next week, was a quite remarkable achievement. Indeed, it was a character reference that would serve most footballers well to the end of their days.

At 22, Fabregas's horizons remain breathtaking. Nor does Wenger's body of work disappear in the shadow of the preliminary evidence that Pep Guardiola's Barça have the ability to operate on an entirely superior level to his Arsenal team.

Still, if it is callous to infer with any degree of finality about Arsenal and all their ambitions, it is no less than an evasion of reality to avoid the growing question mark against their status as serious challengers to Manchester United and Chelsea.

The question has been refined considerably since they opened the season with a six-goal blitz at Everton. Now, it asks quite bluntly whether Arsenal, as currently constructed, are ever going to graduate beyond the lovely pastures of mere promise.

No one, we have learnt again this season, ransack their inferiors more clinically, more beautifully than Wenger's team. But when Barcelona pushed and pushed, and then pushed a little more exquisitely for much of Wednesday night, and Arsenal had to resort to the kind of shoving which invites their scorn when it is performed by Bolton Wanderers or Stoke City or Birmingham, it was as though English football had been turned upside down.

Who, after all, could ever have thought Arsenal's greatest attribute would be a capacity to absorb the most severe punishment and somehow claw their way back to the kind of uneasy parity they take to the Nou Camp in next week's second leg?

Wenger was candid enough about the degree of Barça's superiority in the first half – and was right to praise the character his team displayed in the second half, especially after Manuel Almunia had betrayed the courage and brilliant reflexes that denied the extraordinary early torrent of Barcelona aggression.

He did that with the elementary goalkeeping lapses that allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score two goals and at least challenge the perception that he may be one of the most over-rated strikers in the history of the game.

Wenger's suggestion that after a display of such fight Arsenal cannot be denied a chance in the second leg is also beyond dispute. But then this does not begin to dislodge the uncomfortable truth underlined by Barcelona almost from the moment they walked on the field, sniffing the damp, cold air and looking down their noses at the team many of us believed were capable of bringing to the top level of the European game at least some of their own sublime effectiveness.

What Arsenal lacked so critically was a competitive authority, the kind they needed to repel United and Chelsea this season and to establish a degree of dominance against Barcelona that would have been so helpful to their chances in the second leg.

In almost every case, Arsenal were seriously short of requirements. The exception came on their visit to Old Trafford early in the season, when they were unlucky not at least to draw. But since then when it has mattered most they have been unable to make a serious challenge. Manchester United outplayed them at the Emirates and twice they have been bludgeoned by Chelsea.

This week produced some resistance among the ashes but not a single soul, surely, left the stadium believing that their greatest asset had not been Barça's profligate exploitation of a vast advantage in skill and imagination.

Arsenal most lacked a basic belief in their ability first to repel the virtuosity Barcelona heaped upon them, then inflict their own quality. It didn't help that in the first half Barça produced a level of football that their coach, Pep Guardiola, later admitted was the best they had given him in his brief but stunning rise as a coach of both fire and originality.

Most hurtful to Arsenal sensitivities though would have come had they carried their minds back to events at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League semi-final a year ago. Then, only the most erratic refereeing denied Chelsea the reward for a superb statement of belief that they could compete with Barcelona on their own terms.

Barça had no time to inflict the kind of psychological damage they spread around the Emirates with almost every touch of the ball. At Stamford Bridge, Lionel Messi's challenge was not to announce himself as the game's most purely talented player, as he did so compellingly in the first half this week, but to make himself visible. He barely did that and Barcelona were obliged to creep back home nursing the most outrageous good luck.

What do Arsenal do now? They congratulate themselves on their survival instincts and hope desperately that Alex Song, such a strong presence in his midfield spoiling role, can learn in a few days some of the rudiments of central defence and that the normally excellent Thomas Vermaelen will regain his nerve after the ordeal of chasing so many yellow-shirted shadows flitting around his goal area.

They must hope that Samir Nasri can contribute more than an occasional intervention and that Abou Diaby searches for what until recently appeared to be a natural-born strength and self-belief.

Mere details, you may say, but they do tend to shape the kind of inherent authority which flowed through so much of Barcelona's performance. For Wenger the agony must be that his team had never looked further from such conviction.

Yes, they fought back, they scuffled their way to a kind of brave respectability. But this is something Wenger has never had in mind. He has always wanted to win everything, and in the best possible style, but if it is too soon to bury another season of his hopes, it is also hard not to mourn the possibility that his team is still simply not good enough.