By Jonathan Gold
This, ladies and gentlemen, was a triumph. This was a season-definer, one of Arsenal’s biggest wins in years. A comeback victory over probably the greatest professional soccer team ever assembled. It was truly astonishing.
And yet, it was also a demonstration that Arsenal really is its own worst enemy.
It looked to be going precisely how I and everyone else in the sane world predicted when David Villa took advantage of a mistake by Clichy to beat the offside trap and finish with his usual precision before the half-hour mark. I’d been mildly encouraged by the early pressure from Arsenal, but I’ve seen them flounder time and again after getting my hopes up in big games. All too often, the Gunners come out blazing and fade down the stretch.
This close to the game, I’m not able to describe the tactics used to you with any sort of precision, because my brain is not functioning correctly. But soccer’s collective punditry has apparently decided that Wenger’s genius had a lot to do with the team’s unbelievable fightback against what still must be described as superior opposition.
How typical of Robin van Persie to squander good chances early and then equalize through an almost impossible shot from the tightest possible angle. The skill involved was breathtaking, of course – on the oh-so-rare occasions van Persie is able combine match sharpness with top physical condition, he is easily one of the best strikers in the world – but it was the decision-making that made it truly special. Barca keeper Victor Valdes assumed, quite reasonably, that the Arsenal forward would try to drill the ball across the goalmouth for the onrushing Nicklas Bendtner, and clearly was cheating in that direction, away from his near post, giving van Persie the tiny opening he needed to score.
(Caveat here – van Persie may just have been trying to cross and got extremely lucky, of course, in which case it seems like as good a time as any to say “Football. Bloody hell.”)
And how typical of Andrei Arshavin – still mired in pretty abject form, despite showing signs of a possible resurgence – to cap off a breathless, beautiful Arsenal counterattack by slotting home into the bottom right as though he’s been doing it every week. And then celebrating, hilariously, by revealing a t-shirt featuring a picture of himself in his famous shushing pose.
More predictable, though, was the performance of Jack Wilshere, who once again demonstrated that – on the pitch, at least – he’s immensely mature for his years. A lot of commentators have him as man of the match, and I find it difficult to argue. He was Arsenal’s engine in midfield and was clearly not overawed by the occasion. Remember that he’s 19. Goddamn.
The winner was, if anything, better than the equalizer, cramming a host of happy sights for Arsenal fans into a heart-stopping period of less than 20 seconds:
A defender (Koscielny, who was excellent) making good plays. A sense of urgency on the break. A gorgeous, no-look masterwork of a pass from Cesc Fabregas. Nasri terrorizing Barca’s stretched defense. Arshavin waving his arms, screaming for the ball….
Oh, baby. It damn near made me weep. And you’ve got to wonder, when team is capable of playing like that against the best in the world, how is it possible to cough up a four-goal lead against the likes of Newcastle?
Mental fragility, unquestionably, is the central issue for this team. Sure, there are still the perennial issues in defense and goal, but the squad is good enough to win the league, particularly this year.
And yet, time after time, they sputter when it matters. Newcastle. Spurs. Newcastle again. West Brom.
For contrast, look no farther than Manchester United. Some of their core players – Giggs, Scholes, Van der Sar – are already overdue for retirement. Luis Antonio Valencia is only now getting back into training after a horrific injury in mid-September against Rangers. Wayne Rooney has only recently begun to show flashes of his rampaging best.
They’ve turned in poor performances, lost leads, and drawn many games they should have easily won. Yet they’ve lost exactly one league game this year. Anyone still think mental stability doesn’t matter?
I want this to be the turning point. All Arsenal’s players have to do is keep reminding themselves that if they can beat Barcelona, they can literally beat anyone. If this is the lesson they take away from this game – even if they get beat in the return leg, which is still eminently possible – then they really could turn on the style as we head into the final stretch of the season.
But I’ve been burned before, so I’ll try to keep my optimism under control. I haven’t checked the lines or anything, but for me, Barca are still favorites to advance, though no longer overwhelming ones.
I think, in fact, that the biggest aftereffects of this win will be against domestic opposition. (Pity League One’s Leyton Orient, who now have to face a team flush with victory over the best in the world in the FA Cup, for one thing.) Beating Barcelona could spark a run of league form, and the Gunners are still only four points behind United, for all the frustration and misfiring.
For tonight, though, it’s enough to have experienced one of the best Arsenal wins in years and felt tremendous envy for those lucky enough to be there when the Emirates was rocking.
Jonathan Gold is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He is an Arsenal fan.