Master Against Pupil

Last night was a strange game. At times, the game was a mismatch with Barcelona clearly the wearing the trousers. The game will mainly be remembered for the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes.

The first 20 minutes was a Barcelona gang rape. The only positive to take from that period of the game was the outstanding display by Manuel Almunia. This man alone kept Arsenal in the tie in the first half. He was brilliant. I felt like groveling to Almunia over my criticism of his mistake against Birmingham City. But at the start of the second half he showed me the “other” side of his game – making a dreadful error with his positioning for Barcelona’s first goal. It was shocking.

Saving penalties and shot stopping are all well and good, but keepers earn their corn from their positioning and dealing with crosses.

Almunia is not the complete package. He is like the photograph above – his game doesn’t match up.

But then Barcelona’s goalkeeper wasn’t much better. He will look at Theo Walcott’s goal with embarrassment. The combination play for Walcott’s goal was simple yet superb. So was the timing of Walcott’s run but his shot was average. It was put into the net by the forearm of Valdes. Ex- Arsenal and England midfielder David Platt said that Walcott shooting early probably helped him score, but Valdes deep down knows that he should have done better.

Walcott scored with just over 20 minutes left and completely changed the game. Arsenal were in ascendancy and took the game to Barcelona. From being dead and buried Arsenal produced heroics similar to that of the fictional character Edmond Dantes in the book “The Count of Monte Cunto” and escaped to find themselves even at 2-2.

Like any battle, there were casualties. Cesc and Gallas are out for the season, and Arshavin will probably miss the return leg in Barcelona.

However, there are some positives. Denilson looks more comfortable playing against a team with Barcelona’s style. Nasri will now be able to play in his preferred position – the one vacated by Cesc. Walcott’s pace really troubled Barcelona and stopped their attacks from the left hand side. Taking off Sagna and bringing on Walcott was a master substitution by Wenger. It has kept Arsenal in this tie.

The big question regarding the return leg is Sol Campbell. Will he start in the Camp Nou? Song is the only other option Wenger has. But with Cesc and Ramsey injured in midfield, Wenger may have no option but to play Sol as Song will be needed in midfield. One thing the Arsenal midfield did not do last night was close Barcelona down. What teams like Stoke City are very good at is closing opponents down and not giving them time on the ball. It could be argued that they are more effective when they don’t have the ball than when they do. Barcelona showed that they work just as hard when they don’t have the ball – denying the opposition time and space – but can be deadly when they do.

The next game is against Wolves. Mentally, this game is tough for Arsenal. From the highs of last night to the grit of the Premiership. It’s like going back to work after being on holiday in the Caribbean.

That’s why we need Sol.

Keep It Arsenal

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