Wednesday, February 24, 2016

European disappointment mustn't damage title chances

Even though the most optimistic of Arsenal fans knew that a win against Barcelona would have been incredibly difficult to get, with 70 minutes gone at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, Arsenal were right in the game. Arsene Wenger had got things right tactically, the team were working hard for each other and had kept the much-heralded front three of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar as quiet as we could have hoped for. But as they have done in recent years at the same round-of-16 stage of the Champions League, Arsenal contributed to their own downfall and the subsequent 0-2 defeat means it’ll take a footballing miracle for Arsenal to get the result they need in the Nou Camp in three weeks time to go through.
The game was a bit of a freebie in terms of the main focus being on the Premier League, but that doesn’t change the fact it was incredibly disappointing to do well for so long before effectively being out of the tie completely.
The two goals scored by Barcelona highlighted just how ruthless this current incarnation of that team are. While they’re still able to play the possession football, they thrive on counter-attacking and utilising the quick interplay between the front three. Just after the 70-minute mark, Arsenal were caught short defensively as the back four pushed up and Francis Coquelin was further upfield. With Arsenal horribly exposed, Suarez was able to find Neymar, who in turn found Messi, who inevitably found the net. Arsenal knew they’d have to concentrate fully for the whole game to get anything from it, and the first time they didn’t focus, they were punished.
For almost every other similar situation to the first goal in the game, Arsenal’s back four had dropped off, allowing Per Mertesacker to not get exposed, while Coquelin and Ramsey worked hard in midfield to cover the space in front of them. But it only needed to be one lapse against Barcelona and the Catalans took their opportunity. Arsenal were building up a head of steam prior to the opening goal, and maybe got too excited and neglected the defensive duties. Even though it came against a much weaker team, it felt like Arsenal hadn’t drawn on the horrible experiences against Monaco last season when the Gunners piled too many men forward and got killed on the counter-attack, and in a competition where away goals, rightly or wrongly, are incredibly important, that is plain daft.
At 1-0 down, it was still going to be difficult for Arsenal to get through with the second leg to come, but it was important they didn’t do anything stupid to make it worse. Unless Francis Coquelin was injured, I can’t work out why Mathieu Flamini came on with 10 minutes to go. Seconds later, Mertesacker tried to play a pass in the edge of his box when he should have put his foot through the ball and wellied it clear, Flamini was caught on his heels and desperately hacked towards the ball and brought down Messi for a penalty. Even though his presence keeps Mesut Ozil happy, that moment of madness makes it harder to see Flamini getting a contract extension at the end of the season. He tries hard, but isn’t good enough to be playing in an elite game against a team like Barcelona.
Barcelona are the best team in the world right now, so there’s absolutely no disgrace in losing 2-0 to them, but Arsenal matched them for 70 minutes and got nothing to show for it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed a glorious chance in the first half when the ball broke to him unmarked in the penalty area, but he snatched at the opportunity rather than calmly finishing. Olivier Giroud also had a good headed chance in the second half, but he did well to get a decent downward header on target as his shirt was literally being ripped off him by Javier Mascherano. It continued a worrying trend of Arsenal missing chances, and while the effort and link-up play of Giroud remains excellent, with Danny Welbeck looking lively on his return to the squad, the Frenchman’s place in the team is under threat.
The challenge for the Gunners to not let the result affect them in the Premier League. In previous years, the doom and gloom heading towards the second leg has hung badly over the team, but this year, there’s a league title to win, and Arsenal have to focus on that. There were plenty of positives to take from the game as, for the most part, I thought Arsenal played really well with the likes of Cech, Bellerin and Monreal all putting in some stellar showings. If the Gunners win the next three league games against Manchester United, Swansea and Tottenham, then the disappointment in Europe will soon disappear.
Finally, a word on the nasty side of Barcelona. They’re a great team and the front three can be mesmeric to watch, but the team are guilty of some disgraceful behaviour during matches and, more often than not, the referee accepts it and does nothing. The worst example on Tuesday night came when Jordi Alba threw himself to the ground clutching his face after Giroud ran past him and brushed his arm on Alba’s chest after the two competed for the ball. Alba’s subsequent accusations of an elbow, and pushing his head into Giroud, typified the side of Barcelona that gets ignored too often. Had that been an Arsenal player putting their head towards a Barcelona player, I’m certain the Barca man would have rolled on the ground and Arsenal would likely have been down to 10 men. When they’re such a good team, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth as they don’t need additional help from the officials and they don’t need to cheat.