Arsenal were outclassed again, but how that red card makes you wonder
Champions League Last 16 Second Leg: Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (Aggregate 4-3)
ULTIMATELY, defeat was inevitable. Barcelona were just too good, too overpoweringly, almost unfathomably good. But still the result, and a 13th consecutive failed Champions League campaign for Arsene Wenger, leaves a sour taste.
Robin van Persie’s 56th-minute red card was such an extraordinary moment that it would be impossible for it not to be the talking point.
Yes, Barcelona were totally, utterly dominant and yes, they outplayed Arsenal for all of the second leg and about 80 per cent of the tie in total. But football matches are decided in moments, in split seconds that will be played over and over again.
And, no matter how often you replay the moment Van Persie was sent off and Arsenal were reduced to a desperate, almost hopeless, 10 men against a rampant Barcelona, it still makes little sense.
The Dutchman had been booked for lashing out at Daniel Alves in the first half but, on second viewing, even that decision looked a questionable one. However the Arsenal striker had been involved in a spat with Eric Abidal moments earlier, and should perhaps have known better.
But when he raced on to a Cesc Fabregas pass just two minutes after Arsenal had equalised on the night, Van Persie was probably only thinking of the kind of retribution that a second goal could have fashioned.
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He shot wide and looked full of regret for missing the chance. But, moments later, the regret turned to disbelief as the Swiss referee, Massimo Busacca, made the kind of decision that can only end in the circumstances Arsenal fans are now feeling.
By now, everybody has seen the television replays that confirm it was less than a second between the whistle sounding and Van Persie shooting, before being shown a second yellow card and, therefore, a red.
It was not a decision that changed the flow of the game, or the tidal wave of possession and chances that the Catalans were enjoying. But it was a decision that, indisputably, took the tie away from Arsenal.
Barcelona’s passing and movement was too much for the Gunners regardless, but that decision rendered them powerless, lambs to the slaughter on the sacrificial altar of the Nou Camp, where so many have perished before.
There were heroics after that, from Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou and Manuel Almunia at the back, and the lionhearted Jack Wilshere in midfield. But, just as Arsenal had discovered in the 2006 final in Paris, facing Barcelona a man down is akin to slow torture. And it ends in certain death.
Even at 3-1, however, Arsenal were still in the tie. If they could find a goal from somewhere they would go through, and one glorious chance presented itself on 87 minutes.
The tireless Wilshere was the creator, seizing on Barcelona’s casual loss of possession to play in Nicklas Bendtner, who wasted the chance with a heavy first touch.
If there was a moment that summed up this game, then that was probably it, rather than the red card, or the ludicrous backheel attempted by Cesc Fabregas in first half injury time that resulted in Lionel Messi’s opener, or the penalty decision against Koscielny for the decisive goal. Arsenal had one chance to make Barcelona pay for their profligacy, and they failed to take it, because they were simply not good enough to do so.
Even after being donated an equaliser by Sergio Busquets’ own goal� headed past Victor Valdes from an Arsenal corner that represented a rare foray into the Barcelona half.
Much though Wenger and Arsenal fans everywhere raged against the red card, they simply could not deny that the better side had won this game.
The Gunners had little possession, but held the Catalans at bay until Fabregas decided to try a little fantasy defending, and the ball was shepherded forward for Messi to bewitch Almunia with his close control and volley home.
Almunia, with echoes of that 2006 final in Paris, had entered the fray as a 19th minute substitute, not for a red card this time but after Wojciech Szczesny had seemed to hurt a finger in fielding a free-kick from Alves.
The change did not affect the game, but the goal did. From that moment on, Arsenal looked up against it�but were handed an unlikely lifeline eight minutes into the second half when Busquets headed into his own net.
Arsenal led 3-2 on aggregate, but there was an age to go in this game and it seemed double that after Van Persie’s dismissal.
Pride, and some defiant goalkeeping from Almunia, kept the Spaniards at bay, but with 21 minutes to go the tie was level at 3-3 on aggregate when Xavi’s effort deflected off Bacary Sagna and into the net.
Just two minutes later they scored what proved to be the decisive goal, when Pedro tumbled over the leg of Koscielny, and Messi scored impudently past Almunia.
After that Arsenal knew that one goal was still enough to go through, but it never looked likely save for Bendtner’s chance.
A possible four trophies has become two in the blink of an eye, and it could be reduced to just one if Arsenal are beaten at Old Trafford on Saturday.
That can always be the case if you fight on all fronts into the latter stages, but it is still a hard pill to swallow for Arsenal fans still hurting from that Wembley heartache.
Wenger has just days to find a solution and, after the brutal experience of the Nou Camp, Old Trafford seems like an unforgiving next destination to achieve such a task.