It’s hard to look back on the first leg of Arsenal’s Champions League tie with Barcelona with anything other than a sense of regret.
Okay, maybe there is some slight sense of pride in watching our team matching Barcelona for 70 minutes. Especially when we had been written off everywhere outside of north London beforehand. However, we all know that the tie is as good as over at the halfway stage. Again.
When even über optimist Arsène Wenger rates Arsenal’s chances of progression to the quarter finals at 5%, you know you’ve got problems. It’s tempting, here, to dwell on whether the changes to the way the Champions League groups are seeded have damned us to a Groundhog Day style elimination in the second round forever more, but it is not my intention to depress you all. Not yet, anyway. Or, perhaps better put, not like this.
The overriding impression I was left with having watched Arsenal battle, manfully, for 70 minutes before dropping their guard and falling victim to a classic sucker punch, was that we are a very good football team, but just not a great one. And, I’ll be honest, much as I do want the best for Arsenal, I’ve made my peace with that. I guess it’s easier for me to do so because my investment is now limited to switching on a television, or a laptop or sometimes a television and a laptop. I think that if I was paying the sort of prices that Arsenal now charge for home games, I might feel a little differently. So, dear reader, if the second sentence of this paragraph fills you with horror, I understand. I would have reacted the same way 10 years ago, but times change.
It’s also a case of being realistic about the players we’re watching, be it in person or on the television, or on a laptop every week. There is an obvious reason, well, 91 reasons actually, why the visit of Suarez, Messi and Neymar, was so exciting for the football watching public. Whilst I think it’s fairly obvious that the standard in La Liga allows a certain amount of flat track bullying from Barcelona, only a stupid person would deny the claims to greatness of that front three. And I, despite any impressions given to the contrary, am not a stupid person.
Compare that front line to the one Arsenal were able to put out last night. Could we really have expected anything other than what we got, a brave, but ultimately doomed, performance from our boys?
The frustration is that, by and large Arsenal had contained this vaunted front three. Ok, yes, Barcelona had their moments, but they were always going to. Whilst Petr Cech saved well from Neymar (who should have squared for Messi), Giroud forced a world class save from Ter Stegen with a second half header. In the first half, Oxlade-Chamberlain really, really should have scored early on, instead he stumbled with the goal at his mercy and failed to connect properly.
On such moments do matches, careers even, turn.
By the same token, the counter-attack which the Ox led late in the second half could, with a bit of composure, a better touch, have led to a goal. Instead it ended with Javier Mascherano (him, again) letting the whole world that, hey man, he was really, really badly injured – though, oddly enough, he seemed to complete the game without too many problems (imagine!). Which was more than could be said of young Chamberlain, who departed three minutes into the second half to be replaced by Theo Walcott.
Barcelona would show us how to properly execute a counter-attack with a goal of stunning simplicity 20 minutes from the end.
I know it’s harsh to pick on these moments, but it is the tiniest little details that separate the great from the good, the winners from the losers. Time and again, Arsenal have been found wanting over the last few weeks. As a run of four goals in seven games would indicate.
One of the people I felt most down on last night was Olivier Giroud. His performance last night, and his subsequent replacement by the effervescent Danny Welbeck, led me to the conclusion that Giroud is far too much of a lamp post to be of use to us at the highest level. In a way, for me, he epitomised the good but not great calibre of player it feels like this team is stocked with.*
In the cold light of day, that is a harsh reading of things. He was only denied an opening goal last night by the aforementioned worldie from Ter Stegen. In the last year the man has scored winning goals, home and away, against Manchester City as well as a winner at home to Bayern Munich. He also scored that hat-trick against Olimpiacos and bordered on the unplayable at Liverpool. However, he has also taken part in every Premier League game played this season. He has taken a battering in one of the most physical leagues in the world. Injuries across our forward line have seen him do this largely without being allowed a break.
Is it any wonder the man seems a bit slow, a bit punch drunk at the moment?
I think he just needs a break. Happily, the return of Danny Welbeck means that he may now get one. Nice timing with a visit to Welbeck’s previous employers on the horizon. Perhaps Sunday lunchtime’s game will mark a great way for the team to get back on the horse. If they can summon up the effort and concentration that they put into large parts of the Barcelona match and, you know, remember where the goal is, they should win this game comfortably. But that, coming off such a disappointment, will be easier said than done. At least Old Trafford should focus the mind.
The Champions League remains something of a Moby Dick for Arsène Wenger. He’s going to have to let it go for this year. It’s time to focus on what is attainable and the Premier League title is very much that. Particularly as we don’t have to play any side quite as good as Barcelona between now and the end of May.
*When I say great, I mean truly Campbell, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp, Henry level great.