Sport

Champions League – Two sides of the coin in North London

Arsenal’s Champions League campaign ended in controversial and disappointing fashion as they were outplayed by an omnipotent and mesmerising Barcelona as they triumphed 3-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate. Barcelona led by the inspired Lionel Messi turned the tie on its head and crushed 10 men Arsenal. They took the lead deep into stoppage time at the end of the first half as a tense encounter threatened to boil over before the interval with Van Persie lucky not see a second yellow and Abidal a red for grabbing Van Persie’s neck. Arsenal, having looked unlikely to progress after Lionel Messi had given Barcelona the lead, were allowed a lifeline back into the tie as Busquets headed into his own net to give the Gunners the crucial away goal they craved. Minutes later however, the tie was turned in Barcelona’s favour by a woeful, bizarre and controversial refereeing decision. Van Persie saw a second yellow for alleged time wasting as he hit a right foot shot wide of Valdes right hand post seconds after being flagged for offside. Arsene Wenger and his players were livid as the Dutchman was sent for an early bath. The tie was turned in Barcelona’s favour as the Catalonians put down the Gunners. Xavi levelled the tie and a penalty from Lionel Messi sealed Barcelona’s win. They were however nearly made to pay for not completely finishing Arsenal off, but Nikolas Bendtners’, who had scored at the Nou Camp on the previous visit, heavy touch let him down as he was smothered by the Mascherano and Valdes after he was given a sight of goal by tenacious Wilshere who had forced a mistake from Abidal. The miss sealed the Gunners earlier exit who will surely rue the chance of not finishing top of their group earlier in the completion.

Let’s not escape the obvious point though, Barcelona were exceptional. The likelihood that we will ever see a team again that holds the ball as well as this current Barcelona team does is unlikely. They imposed themselves on Arsenal dishing out another lesson in how football should be played on their aspirers. The dominance of Barcelona can be emphasised by the statistics after the game. Barcelona held 67% of the ball and mustered 19 shots on goal, 13 of which were on target which in comparison to Arsenal’s poultry 33% possession and a mere zero shots on goal indicates the manner in which Arsenal were dominated by Barcelona’s’ spell binding football. The Gunners was that they were defending with discipline and determination, which was initially limiting their opponents to relatively few chances. But Barcelona turned the screw and got their breakthrough. Barcelona’s work rate in winning the ball back helped keep up their relentless pressure as Arsenal, who had to replace goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with Almunia early on, could not get into their game and to the level required to provide some relief to a hassled defence. Overlapping Barcelona left-back Adriano hit the outside of the bar with an angled shot before a Messi vintage run ended in him shooting straight at Almunia. The goal eventually arrived through the most unlikely of sources as Cesc Fabregas inexplicably attempted a back-heel to Jack Wilshere 30 yards out only to give the ball away to Iniesta. The Barcelona midfielder accepted the gift and sent a ball through to Messi, who brilliantly dinked it over the onrushing Almunia before smacking in a shot. It was the least Barcelona deserved and a brilliant goal from the Argentinean.

The second half livened up as Arsenal, who needed to score, went forward with more purpose. Samir Nasri managed to force a corner from which Arsenal fortuitously took the lead as the despairing Sergio Busquets headed the ball in to his own net. The Nou Camp was stunned and the Gunners baffled probably by their good luck. But minutes later Van Persie saw the controversial red and it was only a matter of when Barcelona would score as they conjured up wave after wave of attacks and undoubtedly it is hard enough to play against Barcelona with 11 men but the 10 men were simply unable to stop the tide. Yes, Barca were brilliant we know they have lost enough games after having 70% possession to know that those numbers are not definitive proof of anything. 11 v 10 is the only important statistic tonight.

It did not take the Catalan club long to make their numerical advantage count. After Alumunia had denied David Villa with a fantastic save, Iniesta produced a fantastic weaving in and out of the Arsenal defence before finding Villa and his first time pass released Xavi, who slotted in via a slight deflection of Sagna..

Extra time? No chance. Koscielny felled Pedro to concede a spot-kick, which Messi expertly converted threatened to collapse. It was only the heroics of Almunia which kept the score down as he denied Ibrahim Afellay and Messi, while Alves misseda sitter. Arsenal substitute Nicklas Bendtner could have punished Guardiola’s team by getting a goal which would have seen his side win on away goals. For a player who aspires to be one the best strikers in the world that was his chance for glory and he unsurprisingly failed to deliver at the moment his team needed him most. At the final whistle the Catalans were delighted, the Arsenal players dejected.

We still need to recognise what a genius Lionel Messi is though. His two goals tonight mean he is now Barcelona’s outright leading scorer in European competition with 33 – he had been level with Rivaldo on 31. His flick for his first goal was sensational too and he has now hit 45 goals this season. The big 50 or even the big 60 cannot be far away for this gem of a footballer.

Arsenal’s season is delicately poised. Talk of the quadruple seems a long time ago for many a Gunner fan. The treble is dead now but the domestic double is still a possibility but Arsenal’s season is threatening to fizzle out after so much promise. Where have we heard that before though? As for Barcelona, they are simply sensational and are outright favourites to win the Champions League and yet another treble as this special, special team continues to go on and on. Who can stop the Catalonian juggernaut?

It was a different story at White Hart Lane as Tottenham Hotspur confirmed their place in the quarter finals of the Champions League along with Shakhatar Donetsk, Barcelona and Schalke as they held AC Milan to a 0-0 draw winning 1-0 on aggregate through Peter Crouch’s solitary goal at the San Siro.

Though a fairly cagey game, this result against giants in European football and the potential champions of Serie A will win Spurs great acclaim after a gutsy display of defensive quality against a threatening and talented Milan squad. Milan certainly took the game to Tottenham, particularly in the first half as Milan kept Redknapp’s team under immense pressure with crisp passing at a high intensity with the ageless Clarence Seedorf dictating much of the play in an outstanding performance from the Dutchman. The World Cup BBC pundit continues to prove that he is still a quality footballer.

But the Spurs defence marshalled by the immense William Gallas held firm. Two clean sheets against an attack containing the talents of Pato, Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved Spurs resilience and fighting spirit, the kind needed to play at this level of European football. This resilience was not only proved by Gallas but also by imposing figure of young Brazilian Sandro who delivered yet another outstanding European performance.

Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes saved from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pato, while William Gallas kept Milan at bay with a goal-line clearance from Robinho’s deflected shot. Rafael van der Vaart almost made the visitors pay the price for their ambition with a free-kick that landed on top of the net before Gomes had to save low down from Pato after he was played in by Ibrahimovic.

Crouch wasted an opportunity to confirm his team place in the quarter finals just after the break when an attempt on goal was squandered. Flamini, jeered roundly for previously playing for Arsenal and for his horrendous tackle on Vedran Corluka in the first leg, nealy stunned White Heart Lane with a low drive that flew inches wide. Uncertain Gomes survived another scare after 64 minutes when he failed to hold Robinho’s shot but recovered as the Brazilian tried to force home the rebound.

As the game entered its final 15 minutes Milan’s efforts carried an increasing desperation, but an effort from Pato flew narrowly off target leaving Spurs fans anxious. Robinho almost grabbed the goal Milan needed as the tie entered stoppage time, but sent his sizzling shot high. With another Italian giant’s scalp under their belt can Tottenham dare to dream in this fairy-tale of a debut campaign in the Champions League.

Other results in Europe were equally intriguing as 10 men Roma were crushed by Shakhatar Donetesk with goals from Hubschman (18),Willian (58) and former Arsenal striker, Eduardo (87) sealing their victory 6-2 on aggregate. Mexes saw a second yellow for a pulling back Adriano at the half way line. It was a dismal exit from the Champions League for Roma who will feel aggrieved at their bad luck as they lay siege to the Ukrainians in the first 15 minutes and Boriello missed a poor penalty as Roma missed a hatful of chances to get back into the tie. But Hubshman’s goal clearly subdued Roma and it was telling in a poor second half for the Italians who bow out with a whimper.

Two goals from Jefferson Farfan and one from Mario Gavranovic saw Schalke come from behind to beat Valencia and reach the last eight of the Champions League. Valencia initially took the lead through Ricardo Costa’s thumping header in the seventeenth minute. But Farfan levelled just before half-time with a superb free-kick. Gavronovic then put Schalke ahead with a scrambled effort which hit both posts and went in before Farfan sealed things in injury-time with a clever chip. It was a nervy encounter and nerves were shredded near the end of the game as Valencia threatened to equalise and get the crucial away goal that they needed when it was delicately poised at 3-2 on aggregate. But Schalke countered and Farfan ensured that his team got through on a great night in Gelsenkirchen for the German side. Dark horses aplenty it seems in the Champions League this season. Could Marseille and Copenhagen surprise us next week? If so we may as well give Barcelona the trophy now.

Matthew Williams

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