Thursday, 17 February 2011
A great night at The Arsenal Stadium
One of the more superficial delights of a Champions League night is that Arsenal have to refer to the stadium as The Arsenal Stadium - a name that oozes the class that epitomized Highbury. Since we moved home in 2006 there have been very few "great" memories. Aside from a couple of wins over Spurs and Henry's last minute header against Manchester United in 2007 I can't really think of too many great days/nights since we arrived. Last night certainly qualifies as such a memory. For the neutral, TV viewing public, it must have been a game from Heaven. Europe's two greatest "football" teams (i.e. the teams that play the best passing game) going toe-to-toe and not disappointing anyone in the way they played. It was a great game, with great players, playing great football. And do you know the best thing about it? Arsenal won 2-1! At the end of the day Arsenal winning is all that matters. The fact that it was a bit "backs to the wall" and 1-0 down, 2-1 up only serves to make it even more sweet.
I mention that we were under a bit of pressure from Barcelona. Of course we were - they are the very best right now, possibly ever. Listening to Radio 5 Live on the way home from the game I began to think that Arsenal had been incredibly lucky last night. According to Lee Dixon Arsenal were "smashed" in the first-half. I certainly didn't see it that way. Perhaps the chances missed by Van Persie (twice) and Fabregas (who crossed when he should have shot) were a mirage and I imagined the whole thing. Yes, Barcelona had chances, and they dominated the ball. For a 15 minute spell towards half-time they seemed to have 13 men on the pitch, such was the possession they were enjoying. But to say Arsenal were "smashed" and outplayed throughout is just plain wrong.
I was annoyed enough with Dixon's critique of the match, giving Arsenal no credit whatsoever, but then they started fielding phone-calls from "Arsenal supporters" who had not been at the game yet saw fit to criticise the players last night. Not one of the boys on the field could be faulted for their effort last night. The only player to turn in a below-par performance was, ironically, Fabregas who gave the ball away a lot, only to make one decisive pass that was instrumental in the winning goal (and he also covered 7.8 miles - more than anyone else in red). When an Arsenal fan phoned in to have a go at the "punditry" he was summarily cut-off by Mark Pougatch for deigning to argue with them - this was the publicly funded BBC for God's sake, not some tin-pot TalkSport phone-in. Disgraceful.
I've got away from the business at hand somewhat there, but I hate the fact that an Arsenal legend like Dixon can sit there on national TV and radio and see fit to slag the players on one of the best nights in the Club's recent history. The genuine facts of the night are that Arsenal beat the best team in the World while having to not play their natural game. It is to the eternal credit of the players that they were able to win a game in which they did not enjoy the majority of possession, that they had to play a different type of match, and yet they found a way to win it. It has often been said that Arsenal only know one way of playing and that, when the going gets tough, they aren't good enough to get the win. Last night they did that very thing and they should be getting the credit they deserve. But this is England, the home of mediocrity, where they would rather praise the "tactics" of Stoke City than the pure football we saw last night from Arsenal. This is the country, remember, where Peter Crouch is said to be a top player.
When we beat Chelsea at Christmas the players finally knew they could win a match against a top team. Last night they did it once again. It is only half-time in the tie, of course, but the Arsenal team should take massive confidence from the result they earned last night. I still don't really believe we will go through, but we certainly now have a real chance - a chance most observers (me included) never gave us before the match last night.
I have been vociferous in my criticism of the Manager over a long period. Last night he got just about everything right. At half-time someone clearly got hold of Samir Nasri and told him that he had to help Clichy to defend against Dani Alves - you didn't see Alves in the second-half until Arshavin replaced Nasri and Arsenal really went for broke. The substitutions last night were a bold gamble and I didn't agree with them at the time. I thought taking off Song would be suicide and I felt withdrawing Walcott left us devoid of pace. However, you can't argue with it when the guys who come on are either starting the move that leads to the winning goal, or actually putting it in the net. The first goal was smashed in by Van Persie, but if our goalkeeper had conceded it we would be screaming blue murder at him. The second-goal however was a throwback to the days of Bergkamp, Henry, Pires and co. I remember a goal we scored against Bayer Leverkusen where Pires, Bergkamp and Wiltord all combined from one end of the pitch to the other (all in one-touch passes) to set-up Henry for a goal in front of the North Bank. The winner last night had more than a mild echo of that particular classic. The finish from Arshavin perhaps showed a man returning to his natural level after so long out of form - how many similar chances has he skied this season?
At the back I thought Koscielny and Djourou were fantastic. Koscielny undoubtedly played his best game for the Club last night and it came on the biggest stage, against the best team and the best player in the World. It may be that the young Frenchman has suffered from being thrown in at the deep end at Arsenal this season, so soon after arriving in England. I certainly hope so and that he kicks on from here to produce the goods every week. In midfield Alex Song and Jack Wilshere were utterly immense. That Wilshere should shine in a midfield comprising Fabregas, Nasri, Iniesta and Xavi says it all about his impact last night. How good will he be when he matures as a player?
Finally I have to say something about the crowd. I slagged sections of the home "support" after Saturday. Last night was completely different. The Club got the pre-match stuff just right with the flags, the video montages and the blinding spotlights inside the ground. From then on it was a wall of noise from all four sides. Every player was given their due by the supporters, including Eboue and Bendtner - and rightly so. The noise at the second-goal was surely the loudest we've yet had at the Grove - certainly Arshavin said he had never known it so loud at Arsenal. Truly intimidating is not something that is usually associated with the Arsenal support (often unfairly) but last night was awe-inspiring.
At the end of the day it was an epic atmosphere, an epic performance from both sides, and an epic game of football. A match for the ages, if ever there was one, and it's only half-time!