Last night was why we all worship the beautiful game. A perfect advert for football: the atmosphere, the drama, the euphoria.
Not to mention the small factor of it being Arsenal v Barcelona. The great pretenders versus the pass masters. Could there be a more entertaining proposition in world football?
Barcelona, long considered the best attacking team in the world – and, arguably, of all time – were a joy to behold; each player effortlessly comfortable on the ball and each one with the patience of a saint. They tease. They taunt. They wait for their moment.
And in the 26th minute they found it. A sumptuous through ball from Lionel Messi (you may have heard of him) released the lurking David Villa who provided a tidy finish past the onrushing Wojciech Szczesny. Business as usual for Barca from here on out, you would have been forgiven for thinking – and for the best part of the first hour it was just that.
Pass after pass. Turn after turn. Chance after chance. I, for one, will certainly never discount geometry as an interest ever again. I’ve never seen so many triangles (and this is coming from an Arsenal fan). But despite a goal ruled out for offside and a couple of Messi chances squandered, Barcelona could not find that vital second to kill the game.
The Gunners came out for the second half looking like a new team. Rejuvenated, they stood firm in the face of inevitable Barcelona chances. Laurent Koscielny – absolutely outstanding last night – had his finest game in the red and white and looked like a man of courage and determination. And with Walcott and Nasri switching wings in an unpredictable fashion, Barcelona started to creak.
As the clock ticked down, Arsenal began to match Barcelona move for move. And, for once, it was the Catalan giants that looked short of ideas. Arsene Wenger brought on Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner for Alex Song and the excellent Theo Walcott, knowing that it was now or never.
And then it came. Gael Clichy fed the ball through to Robin van Persie who rifled a shot past the helpless Valdes in the Barcelona goal from the tightest of angles. The roof was well and truly off at The Emirates. One apiece, then, and certainly not the finish the Catalans had expected.
Having taken the deadly David Villa off before the equaliser and with the scores now level, it was no longer the Blaugranas with the upper hand. And, after five minutes, the unthinkable happened. Arsenal beat Barcelona at their own game.
A beautiful move which started at the half way line with Fabregas, saw Samir Nasri tee up Arshavin who effortlessly curled his strike past two Barca defenders and the stranded Victor Valdes. The Emirates was on fire once more.
A tense final few minutes ensued as Barcelona tried to find a late equaliser. It wasn’t pretty, but the Gunners stood firm until the final whistle.
A proud, historic victory for Gooners everywhere – but the tie is not over yet. The away leg will be even tougher for Arsenal but the belief is there along with the knowledge that Barcelona are, in fact, mere mortals too.
In all the jubilation and plaudits for the usual suspects, it would be easy to overlook one crucial factor in Arsenal’s victory – Jack Wilshere. He had his best game of his career to date – against the mighty Barcelona. He looked composed, calm on the ball and carried an attacking threat all night long. Capello take note – Wilshere can play an attacking role for England rather than in the holding position.
The young midfielder did not look phased by the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and made some crucial challenges to break up play. But the most impressive aspect of his game last night were his forays into Barcelona territory – he looked dangerous and he looked like he had drive and passion. Cynics will point to the stats that, on paper, show Barca’s midfield experience outshone that of the likes of Wilshere but, for me, statistics never tell the full story.
This lad is 19 years of age and is far from the finished article. He stood up to Barcelona and caused them all sorts of problems. He challenged for every ball. He attacked. He defended. He ran Arsenal’s midfield in the second half. And what’s more, he has pride and passion at the heart of his determination. Wilshere has years before he realises the whole of his potential. That is a scary thought.
As the Arsenal faithful sang long into the night, this realisation began to set in – the gap in class is getting smaller and The Arsenal have a new hero.
What a feeling.
By Daniel Todd – Arsenal fan