Nicklas Bendtner's winning goal in the depths of injury time against Wolves at Ashburton Grove on Saturday not only kept Arsenal’s title hopes alive but also - and so very importantly in the short-term - kept the team’s momentum rolling ahead of the trip to Barcelona on Tuesday night.
After the thrills and spills of the home tie against Barca, it was inevitable that Saturday’s home game against Wolves would be subject to a bit of a Champions League hangover. The Gunners enjoyed the majority of possession and created plenty of chances but couldn’t find a cutting edge until the big Dane got on the end of Bacery Sagna’s cross to steal the three points in the 94th minute of play.
Bendtner Nicks It
Mick McCarthy’s team defended resolutely throughout and undoubtedly felt hard done by when Bendtner pulled the rug from under their feet but, from an Arsenal point of view, it was another huge victory clinched by another late goal. Though not a vintage performance from the Gunners, they kept plugging away until the end and yet again got their reward for not giving in. The day might have been a little more perfect had Manchester United and Chelsea played out a draw, but even with the Blues pulling of a very big win at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger’s team are still in the chase and are snapping at the heels of the Premier League leaders.
Attention now swings to the second leg of the Champions League tie against Barcelona at the Nou Camp tomorrow night. The Gunners received more bad news today when Alex Song was ruled out of the game with an inflamed cartilage. With Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin and William Gallas already absent, Song will be sorely missed in the midfield and it is another factor that makes Arsenal’s already difficult task even harder.
Most people outside of the red half of North London are giving the Gunners no chance tomorrow night. It is true that the task they are presented with is enormously daunting and every player is going to have to play out of their skin from start to finish if they are to pull off an unlikely result.
It is hard to remember Arsenal being such huge underdogs in a European tie. Most observers seem to think that Wenger’s men will be like lambs to the slaughter when they step out onto the Nou Camp pitch tomorrow night. But, for supporters of a certain vintage, it is all rather reminiscent of the Gunners Cup Winners Cup semi-final with Juventus in 1980 - and if we are looking for positive precedents then this match certainly was one.
The first leg against the Italians ended in a 1-1 draw at Highbury. Juve were strong favourites to take the tie in the second leg at the Stadio Communale. In the 25 years since European competition started, no English team had ever beaten Juve there. The stadium was like a fortress and the home team contained Italian legends like Zoff, Tardelli, Gentile, Cabrini and Bettega. At the time, Arsenal were a decent cup team but had not won the title for nearly ten years. The idea that they could travel to Turin and win (or clinch a high scoring draw) seemed totally implausible.
Going into the final stages of the match, the score stood at 0-0 and Juve looked set to go through on the away goals rule. With 15 minutes left, manager Terry Neill brought on rookie striker Paul Vaessen as a last throw of the dice. With only two minutes remaining, Vaessen got on the end of a Graham Rix cross and headed past Dino Zoff in the Juve goal. It remains one of the most famous victories in the club’s long and illustrious history.
Playing that night was a certain Pat Rice. So tomorrow night in Barcelona, the Gunners will have one amongst their number who truly knows what it takes to overturn the formbook.
With all the injuries they have to contend with and with Barcelona so strong at home, it is going to take a super-human effort by the Arsenal players to prevail. Barca have their share of absentees too. Ibrahimovic is likely to be out injured and Puyol and Pique are suspended. Even so, the home side will be expected to turn on the style and win easily.
Arsenal have shown plenty of guts and courage this season and have scored enough late goals to prove that they never give in. To win on Tuesday though, they are going to have to do all that and more. It will take an incredible performance to win - but history shows that stranger things have happened.
Strap yourselves in. It looks set to be another heart-stopping night of Champions League football.