Thoughts on Arsenal vs Barcelona, first leg in Emirates Stadium in London.
It was an excellent game of attacking football, as predicted. At one point, Barca had 70% possession, but Arsenal turned that around towards the end.
With 2 away goals, Barcelona is obviously in very good position to advance going into the second leg at home. However, given that they were up 2-0 and at that point should've been a near-lock to advance...but you know that neither of these teams will ever abandon their desire to attack.
1. Almuria. He had an excellent first half, and I was thinking, "wow, Almunia is really answering his critics for Arsene Wenger." But the first goal to start the second half was arguably his fault entirely. It's not a howler, but do you think Victor Valdes or any other topflight keeper concedes a goal there?
2. Wenger. It's trendy to say that his weakness is refusal to care too much about goalkeeping. I can't say I disagree; I think there are some excellent keepers he could buy relatively cheaply (Americans, even!). BUT, his introduction of Walcott into the game changed the match. He won the battle of tactics with Guardiola. The substition of Thierry Henry for Zlatan Ibrahimovic was similarly silly. Henry was sluggish and ineffective. Whatever Guardiola was going for, it didn't work.
Walcott brings a ton of value as a supersub because he can just outrun people, especially when tired. To be honest, I think Wenger planned it out that way, taking off Sagna with 25 minutes left to play. Taking off Arshavin was unusual, but also a substitution that changed the game. Until then, Barca was dominating. Afterwards, much less.
3. The penalty kick. My favorite team in Spain is Barcelona and my favorite team in England is Arsenal. So I'm relatively unbiased when I say this: I don't agree with a penalty kick. And even if so, with a red card? No.
Puyol was in position, and was running for the ball too. He didn't stick out his hip or anything, and while Fabregas was winding up, he took position. In my opinion that is just good defending. That said, it is the referee's judgment call, and I don't think it was a horrible call. It was certainly within realm of debate, though I think probably 80-85% of neutral people would say it wasn't a foul.
I understand that the red card was also given, but I simply disagree with that strongly. Technical assertions of the rules in that spot are a grave error. It was certainly not a tackle-from-behind on a breakway, done intentionally to stop a goal.
4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He had two goals, but he could have had 6. His finish on the first goal was nice, although it was an ill-considered challenge by Almunia. Frankly, he could have had about 3 in the first 10 minutes. Ibrahimovic's second goal was ok, he was one on one, so it's hard to fault Almunia. On the other hand, Almunia stuck himself in no man's land when Ibrahimovic cut down his angle. And Ibra has a tendency to try to roof shots near post in situations like that. Good football teams should have people who prepare them for tendencies. I don't really like how Ibrahimovic played it. He was one on one but cut down his angle (a huge no-no for goalscorers) and then wound up. Basically, he decided to gamble by blasting away. In that situation, with time, the best play is generally to just slot the ball where the goalie is not. And if they go down, then go around them.
5. Xavi is a great through-ball player.
So, in the next match, Fabregas (and someone else I think) won't be playing for Arsenal. That hurts, as Fabregas is their creative spark plug. However, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique will be out for Barcelona. Losing both central defenders is pretty key for a club that has been very thin on defenders this year. In truth, the only reason Madrid is in the title race is that Barca lost/tied some games this year when they were playing third-choice defenders.
That will certainly add a risk factor that will make it possible for Arsenal to get an early goal. Even so, Barcelona showed itself today to be the superior team, and even if Arsenal should get an early goal, it's doubtful that they would change their style and attempt to win ugly by defending.
Barcelona and Arsenal in the Nou Camp will be a spectacle.