Arsenal may have come back to draw 2-2 at home to Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final first leg at the Emirates but the manner in which the Catalans carved the Gunners line demonstrated the huge gulf in class between the sides.
There can’t have be many occasions in his time as manager that Arsene Wenger has been on the receiving end of such an utterly dominant footballing display from an opponent on his home ground.
For over an hour last night, that’s what happened.
Arsenal finally roused themselves into life for a spell near the end to claim an unlikely draw but by that time Barcelona already had two away goals in the bank and were guilty of taking their foot off the gas to allow the Gunners back into a tie they had looked dead and buried in.
What a sobering experience for an Arsenal side lauded by many as the \’nearest thing to Barcelona that the Premier League has to offer’. If last night’s Champions League performance proved anything it is that for all the Gunners’ ability to carve apart the lesser lights of the Premier League it counts for nothing when it comes to the business end of the Champions League.
To be fair to the Gunners, there are few if any other European sides who can match the Catalans when they hit top form. Yet last night – and this is the key point – Barcelona didn’t even have to hit top gear and they were still miles ahead of Arsenal in passing, movement and finishing.
The warning signs have already flashed this season with both Chelsea and Manchester United arriving at the Emirates and bullying Arsenal into submission with an effective rather than stylish approach. Last night was different as Barcelona arrived and overran the home side using style, passing, movement and superior skill. The very traits Arsene Wenger wishes his side to be judged on.
The opening 15 minutes were as perfect Champions League display from Barcelona as any of their other previous victories in the competition. But for the utter wastefulness in front of goal of Ibrahimovic, the Catalans could and should have been at least two if not three goals ahead.
The Swede has divided opinion since his arrival from Inter Milan in place of the troublesome Samuel Eto’o who moved in the other direction last summer. Say what you like about the Cameroon international’s attitude off the pitch but he would have gobbled up those opportunities wasted by Ibrahimovic.
Arsenal lost Arshavin and Gallas to injury and worse still, Fabregas for the second leg due to a yellow card. Replacements Denilson and Eboue offered little after being introduced. How long more will Arsenal fans tolerate Wenger’s policy of bringing through young player after young player when the likelihood of obtaining a domestic (let alone European) trophy looks as remote as ever?
The Swede took his two goals with some aplomb at the start of the second half but Barca will need him to be much more clinical in front of goal in the latter stages of the competition where opportunities will not be as plentiful against better defences.
Credit where it is due though, Arsenal dug deep to unbelievably pull level thanks to a well-taken Walcott effort and a converted Fabregas penalty. The loss of Puyol and Pique for the second leg offers Arsenal a glimmer of hope but without Fabregas and probably Gallas Barcelona should go through.
Pep Guardiola will be livid with his team who stopped playing at 2-0 and were punished for easing off and have now lost two influential centre-backs for the second leg. Despite coming back from two down Arsenal were second-best for over an hour. There is merit in the way they responded but the truth is if Barcelona had taken half the chances they wasted in the opening half they should have been 5-0 ahead.
Deflating as their opening half performance was, Arsenal will take heart from their second half fight-back and travel to Camp Nou knowing an away goal may open the tie up. They face the biggest challenge of their professional lives to turn the tie around but must know that if Barcelona hit top gear in front of their home fans that it could also very easily be the longest night of their careers as well.
The bottom line is if Barcelona reproduce the football they conjured up during much of last night’s tie then they will brush aside a team moulded in their image but not yet anywhere near their level.
Ger McCarthy is author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork League junior footballer.