By Manuel Traquete
Barcelona have seriously compromised their Champions League aspirations on Tuesday as a somewhat lackluster performance saw them lose 2-1 to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
This is a tendency that has been going ever since Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona: under Pep, Barcelona haven’t won a single away match in the Champions League knockout stages: five draws, two defeats.
The first knockout round is usually the most terrible: in 2009, Barcelona produced a poor display and only managed to grind out a 1-1 draw at Lyon; in 2010, an even worse display saw them draw 1-1 at Stuttgart.
In fact, February has been a dire month for Pep Guardiola; in 2009, not only did Barcelona draw at Lyon, they had their worst league run under Guardiola: three consecutive matches without a win (one draw, two defeats).
In 2010, Barcelona drew at Stuttgart and lost their only match in the entire league season at Atlético Madrid. This year, Gijon put an end to their incredible winning streak and Arsenal beat them at the Emirates.
Under Pep Guardiola, February has been a month associated with poor football and disappointing results.
In 2009 and 2010, the problems were eventually solved; both Lyon and Stuttgart were blown apart in the second leg at Camp Nou (5-2 and 4-0) with vintage Messi performances.
But this year is very different: with all due respect to Lyon and Stuttgart, Arsenal are a different beast and Barcelona face a huge task in the second leg.
The truth is that Barcelona can only blame themselves for what happened. The first half was by no means great (Barcelona’s game wasn’t as fluid as usual), but it was more than enough to dominate Arsenal.
The key: pressure.
Arsenal players barely had time to think before executing and Barcelona dominated play all throughout. At half-time, Barcelona led 1-0 with a goal from David Villa, and it wouldn’t have been a shock if there had been more goals for the catalan outfit..
The match seemed under control, but suddenly everything changed. In the second half, for some reason, Barcelona stopped pressuring high up the pitch; they seemed content to defend their lead. In a mind-boggling move, Pep Guardiola brought Keita in for David Villa, who was Barcelona’s most dangerous attacking player on the night.
This is just not the Barcelona way of playing; traditionally, the Catalans are always hungry to score more and more goals, even if the score is 5-0.
Barcelona neglected their own core values and they were rightly punished; instead of having decided the tie in London, Barcelona now face an uphill battle in the return fixture.
Arsenal played a great match and they took full advantage of Barcelona’s relaxation. They scored two goals in five minutes after a period of intense domination, and suddenly they had the upper hand.
Barcelona woke up after the goals, but it was too late and Arsenal had all the momentum. Arsenal were just the hungrier side on the night and fought their hearts out for a much-deserved win.
The celebration by both players and fans in the end said it all; Arsenal had just recorded arguably their greatest victory ever in Europe. Their celebration was well justified indeed.
This momentum will make them a very, very tough opponent in the second leg. After the heroic effort it took to beat the best team in the world, you can rest assured that Arsenal will hold on to their lead with their lives at Camp Nou.
Barcelona must be fully aware that they’ll now face an extra-motivated Arsenal side who will give 10,000 percent.
But Barcelona have only themselves to blame for this; the tie could very well have been put to bed if Lionel Messi hadn’t morphed into Emile Heskey in front of goal.
The Argentine is widely recognized as the best player in the world, but he certainly didn’t play like it at the Emirates. Valdés can also be blamed for the first goal, but the biggest share must go to the overall complacent attitude after half-time.
Allowing a side of Arsenal’s quality to get back into the match is suicidal!
Led by Jack Wilshere, the Gunners produced some magnificent football and they took their chances in front of goal. Robin Van Persie and Arshavin scored two excellent goals and gave Arsenal the win.
In the end, the win was a fair reward for Arsenal and an adequate punishment for Barcelona.
The second leg at Camp Nou will be a true test to Barcelona’s mettle; they can either pull a Clásico-like performance and advance (while making up to their supporters for their poor first leg performance), they can expect Messi to go crazy, have another career-defining performance and single-handedly destroy Arsenal’s hopes, or they can simply play poorly again and crash out.
All champions have to face adversities at some point. While Barcelona are fairly considered the best team in the world, that doesn’t mean that they must just show up to win games.
The pressure is all on Barcelona to turn this adverse result around: if they fail to perform, they just don’t deserve to win the competition. Simple as that.
One thing is certain: this pathetic away form in Europe is a problem that must be addressed urgently; while Barcelona’s strong home form might be enough to eliminate Arsenal, it sure won’t be enough to win the tournament again!