UEFA Champions League: Barcelona eliminate Arsenal 3-1 (4-3 Aggregate)
Barcelona came into tonight’s matchup trailing Arsenal on a 2-1 aggregate after Arsenal’s comeback win last month. They left tonight’s contest the clear winners. Messi notched two goals, bracing a Xavi goal that sent the Catalans up 2-1 after Sergio Busquets gifted Arsenal an own goal.
Barcelona dominated the game, attacking early and often, and forcing Arsenal into a defensive mind immediately after the opening whistle. Barcelona played their typical game – holding about 77% percent of the possession, and fighting vigorously to reacquire the ball after losing it.
The first 45 minutes amounted to an uninspired display of possession football, but once stoppage time began, things started getting interesting. While Jack Wilshere writhed on the ground beneath them, Eric Abidal and Robin van Persie broke out in a little trash talk that resulted in Abidal grabbing van Persie’s throat. Once play resumed, van Persie got himself a yellow card with an intentional shove into Dani Alves’ face.
Minute later, on the Arsenal end of the pitch, Cesc Fabregas may have finally shown us where his true allegiance lies. The Arsenal captain who was so vigorously courted by Barcelona this summer attempted a suicidal back heel right outside his own box. The flick traveled right into the path of the oncoming Iniesta, who managed to pop it through two defenders to Messi. Messi used the ball’s loft to juggle it over Almunia, who dived at his feet and left a wide open net. Messi casually finished his juggle by slamming the ball into the back of the net to put Barcelona up 1-0. All this came in the third minute of stoppage time at the end of the first half, and it could have been prevented had the traitorous culprit Fabregas not handed over the ball for the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner and his runner-up to clean up shop.
The second half presented itself in a much more physical manner, and it wasn’t long before players were flying and rolling all over the field. Less than ten minutes into the half, Barcelona mercifully awarded Arsenal their only goal of the night, when Sergio Busquets accidentally sent a Samir Nasri corner right into the near top corner. Had it been on the other side of the field, it would have been a splendidly executed corner.
Moments later, the strangeness looked set to continue and not let up until the final whistle. Van Persie was flagged for a routine offside, then fired a hard shot that went wide one second after the whistle was blown. In the referee’s eyes, such an egregiously derogatory action was grounds for another yellow card. Van Persie, outraged, pleaded his case by spinning around with his arms in the air, pointing out that the Camp Nou was likely very close to its 99,000 seat capacity. The sound of a whistle from 30 yards off in that kind of noise doesn’t exactly pierce the eardrums.
Nevertheless, van Persie went into the tunnel and Arsenal were left with ten men, one of which apparently thought he had already been traded to Barcelona. If Arsenal were hanging on for dear life before, someone (read: the referee) had come along and stomped on their fingers. The crippled gunners defended valiantly for a brief period of time, but once Xavi slipped a beautifully orchestrated goal around Almunia, things began to look very bleak. When Koscielny pulled down Pedro in the box two minutes later, setting up a Messi penalty, an exit from the Champions League looked all but imminent.
In order to eliminate Barcelona, Arsenal would have to score another goal, with one less man, against the best team in the world (if not overall, then at least at keeping possession). They almost managed the impossible when first leg hero Arshavin broke away down the right wing. He centered a perfectly bowed pass in to Bendtner, but instead of a first-touch shot he opted to give it an extra touch, giving Abidal time to swoop in and clear it away.
With only a few minutes left in the game, there was not enough time for Arsenal for orchestrate another attack against a team like Barcelona. The whistle blew and Wenger’s boys gracefully bowed out of European competition. They turn their attention back to the Premier League, where they sit in second place, one point behind Manchester United. Barcelona look ahead to the semi-finals, and the matches over the next two weeks that will determine their opponent there.
One final note: If you’ve played any of the FIFA video games lately, you’ll know what I mean when I say it was absolutely hilarious to hear Martin Tyler say “you’re most vulnerable when you’ve just scored” during the live broadcast today.
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