Arsenal Play Jenga with Spanish Giants

Fabregas... to Nasri... Can he go all the way here...? Still Nasri, looks for


Martin Tyler's call on Arsenal's second goal has taken its place alongside the call for Michael Thomas' Anfield winner for me. I still get chills hearing it two days after the fact, and I imagine I will feel the same way many years from now. Wednesday night was one of the most amazing of all of Arsenal's many European nights, the first truly great one in the Emirates. Barcelona, largely considered the best footballing side in the world (some positing that they are the greatest in history, to which I say, Take it easy, killer), walked into Emirates Stadium expected by everyone but Arsenal to take us apart for 90 minutes and go home to await a formality at Camp Nou. What they got was a rather more spirited performance than what they have become accustomed to in the Sunny SPL. Arsenal played their football and did what no one believed was possible.

The match started brightly enough, Arsenal pressing well and retaining possession for much of he opening minutes, even creating a good Van Persie chance that was parried away by Valdes. However, as the match progressed, Barca began to test the Arsenal midfield and defense, soon seeing Messi go through on goal, only to miss his chance, thwarted in part by the positioning and body-shape of the unflappable Szczesny. We were playing a rather high line, attempting to catch them with the offside trap, but it seems that while the rest of the back line were watching tape on the 1989 side for pointers, Gael Clichy was watching re-runs of Designing Women. After Fabregas nearly missed Robin's head at the far post, Barca countered quickly. Within a matter of seconds, Clichy managed to play Villa onside for Messi's ball, alone in front of keeper. There was little that Szczesny could do; Villa's finish was perfect.

I don't think I'm alone in saying that my heart sank a bit when the ball went in. It's difficult enough to try and topple Barca, made more so when you've given them an away goal. To their credit though, Arsenal didn't let their heads go down, they continued to harry Barca and try to create chances, although for a long stretch of several minutes, Barca's possession game looked unstoppable. Arsenal were chasing shadows for a time, my personal nadir in this match. Down a goal to the best side in the world and we can't even get the ball.

Whatever Arsene said or did at halftime seemed to work wonders, as Arsenal came back out for the restart by far the more robust side. Jack Wilshere's work in midfield typified the spirit on the night: never, under any circumstances did he give up on a ball or fail to harry the opponent's possession, nor would he let Barca take the ball off him easily, or thwart his passes. We had the better of the match as the second half went on, and despite Barca seeking a second goal, there were few points when they legitimately threatened. I did feel a bit nervous when Pedro flopped in the box off of (the very impressive) Koscielny's hip, as with the ref in charge I expected a penalty to be given, but we dodged that bullet and continued to put Barca under pressure.

The substitutions were where the game seemed to change most in Arsenal's favor. Barca brought off Villa for holding midfielder Keita, which was questionable, but one can't completely fault Guardiola for thinking his side could hold a 1-0 advantage for 20 minutes given the possession they'd had. However, the loss of Villa's threat, coupled with the increased attacking focus of Arshavin on for Song, allowed Arsenal to press further and test the Barcelona goal without Villa's attacking threat at the other end. The Russian made his presence felt early, creating space on the left flank and troubling the defense. This allowed him to pass back to Clichy, who used his right foot (which is usually only ever good for standing on) to clip a ball over the top to find Robin. The Dutch Master's drive from the end line miraculously found the daylight between the post and Valdes, settling in the opposite side-netting for an equalizing goal. Enough pundits have questioned whether it was a shot or a mis-hit cross; to be frank, it doesn't really matter. It was a sublime finish, and in addition to knotting the score, it seemed to breathe fresh life into Arsenal and take a bit out of Barcelona. Bendtner came on for a flagging Theo and Arsenal renewed attack.

If the first was pure happiness, the second was ecstasy, and it summed up much of what makes this Arsenal team what it is. The power of Bendtner held the ball from the pressing defender and he got it to Jack. Wilshere's swift turn and pass got the ball to Cesc, whose vision and touch found Nasri sprinting up the right. Samir's patience and skill on the ball saw him get into the area and find the late-arriving Arshavin with an inch-perfect pass, which our in-form little Russian buried it with one touch, sending Valdes to his back and Arsenal fans everywhere into nirvana. It wasn't a Barcelona goal, it wasn't an Invincibles goal, it was just an Arsenal goal, and an outstanding one.

Yet for all of our great play, we nearly coughed it up late on. Arshavin, defending a ball into our box, intended to head the ball to Szczesny but just nodded it off his arm and into the path of Dani Alves. Szczesny's presence and a scrambled Djourou clearance denied the visitors a last real chance, and the final whistle let us all know that we'd toppled the giants.

Yes, it's only halftime in the scheme of things, but that doesn't matter now. What matters is that we seem to have turned a corner. We've seen this team put in big performances in big games, putting Chelsea to the sword in late December, topping Barcelona Wednesday, and going without a loss in between (or indeed since the Man U debacle on Dec. 13). Arsene Wenger has urged patience with this team for years now as they mature together into a truly top squad, and finally it appears that his vision is coming to fruition at long last.

While we can celebrate on for a while, it's back to work for Arsenal this weekend as we clash with Leyton Orient in League One on Sunday in the FA Cup. It's the third consecutive round in which we've faced a lower league opponent; even so we'll need a performance in order to prevent the same difficulties that Leeds and Huddersfield put us through. I would expect what Arsene would refer to as a "heavily rotated" side, meaning the likes of Cesc, Nasri, Van Persie, and Theo (and Djourou) will sit, while some among Chamakh, Bendtner, Rosicky, and Denilson (and Squillaci) will come in. Expect Sagna to start, and perhaps Kieran Gibbs in for Clichy. Heck, even Almunia might get a game. Anyway, if we don't have the quality in our bench to beat a League One opponent, we don't deserve to advance. Apparently Orient are on a bit of a run, scoring 10 in their last 3 matches and having gone 11 matches without a defeat. I do have a bad feeling that we might see the Arsenal that just think they have to turn up to win, which would be a great mistake. I want to think this team have learned that you have to treat every match seriously, that you're bound to lose the matches in which you don't absolutely apply yourself. Let's hope we don't get burned.

In any event, I'm going to enjoy the next few days. Arsenal have lifted me up on this wave, and I intend to ride it out until I'm placed down upon the shore again. I suggest you all ride it out as well.

Oh, and in case I don't speak to you before next Wednesday, Ryan Shawcross can eat a dick.