Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say you were beaten by a better team. It's not often that Arsenal have to admit that but Wednesday night's 3-1 defeat to Barcelona was one such occasion.
There is far to much hyperbole and exaggeration in football coverage but when the current Catalan team are described as "one of the greatest club sides in the game’s history”, it is hard to disagree. Whatever you may think of the club itself, the way it is run and the disgraceful way it sometimes behaves in the transfer market, there is no doubt that the current crop of players representing it are up there with the best of all-time and they certainly are the benchmark by which all teams at the top of today’s game have to measure themselves.
A Dejected Cesc After Barca'a First©Getty Images
Three weeks ago, Arsenal measured up very well indeed. Last night was a different story though as the Gunners tried to repel wave after wave of Barca attacking play in a match that was largely one-way traffic. The statistic that Arsene Wenger’s side couldn’t muster a single shot in the ninety minutes – either on or off target – really tells you all you need to know.
• Barca blog: To the attacker, the spoils
Despite conceding three goals, the Gunners actually defended well, particularly in the first half. Cesc Fabregas’s misplaced back-heel just before the break was an unnecessary error but it still took two sparkling pieces of football from Iniesta and Messi to ensure that full punishment was exacted. Some of the defending may have been desperate and last-ditch but it was clear that the Gunners were concentrating at a far higher level than we usually see from them.
The problem was that every time the ball was won, Barca almost immediately won it straight back mainly due to the intense chasing back they do when out of possession. Arsenal were simply unable to get a foothold in the game and could not get any sort of passing movement going.
Despite all that though, the sending off of Robin Van Persie whilst the score stood at 1-1 remains a major controversy and a big talking point. How much this impacted on the result and what might have happened had the Dutchman stayed on, we will never know. Wenger felt sure the Gunners would have snatched the tie if it had remained 11 vs 11. However, his bullishness was probably more about face-saving than anything else. Perhaps the fairest assessment was that his dismissal turned the chance of an improbable outcome into an impossible one.
What we can say about Van Persie’s sending off was that it was one of the most ridiculous refereeing decisions of the season. Neither of the yellow cards he received seemed particularly justified but, in particular, the second one for time-wasting was just baffling. He was already in motion to take a shot when the whistle was blown and the time between the whistle sounding and him kicking the ball was one second. That is a world away from cynically kicking the ball away to delay the re-start of play. In such a high profile match, you need officials who can exercise some common sense and who are able to see the bigger picture. Sadly, the Gunners were victims of an official that had the capacity for neither.
Over the past few years The Champions League has been littered with such refereeing performances. Chelsea also suffered against Barcelona in the home leg of their semi-final with the Spaniards in 2009. UEFA’s drive to be all-inclusive often means that referees from countries who don’t have the experience of officiating week-in and week-out at the highest level of the game get put in charge of matches way beyond their capabilities. Today, Arsene Wenger and Samir Nasri have been charged with improper conduct for comments they made to Massimo Busacca after the final whistle. Where, though, is the recourse for the clubs when referees turn in incompetent displays?
Still, nothing will change what happened now and the Gunners have to pick themselves up ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Manchester United. The fact that Arsenal are now out of the Champions League but United are yet to play their last-16 second leg match could have a big bearing on the teams that are selected. You would imagine that Alex Ferguson will be resting a few players ahead of their game with Marseille next Tuesday. Maybe Arsene Wenger will be tempted to take advantage and put out a stronger side than the one he might have fielded had last night ended more positively. We shall see.
It has been a disappointing couple of weeks. Though the Orient result was a fillip after the Carling Cup Final, last weekend’s display against Sunderland had Arsenal fans tearing their hair out again. It took a favour from Liverpool on Sunday to limit the damage of drawing a blank against the Black Cats. However, on the brighter side, the Gunners have their fate in the Premier League back in their own hands and the FA Cup still to play for. It is vital that the players put last night’s result behind them as quickly as possible and Old Trafford would be the ideal place to get things back on track.
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