Wednesday, February 16, 2011



By Wayne Robins

Barcelona had been leading its UEFA match against Arsenal in London Wednesday evening(afternoon here in New York) 1-0 on an almost too easy goal by David Villa at 26 minutes. It was business as usual, as Arsenal hadn't beaten Barcelona in five consecutive matches.

Arsenal had been playing with energy and poise for most of that first half, with the exception of Alex Song, who barely six minutes into the match drew an uncontested yellow card for an ill-timed tackle of Messi, Barcelona's scoring machine (40 goals in 37 appearances this season) and whom with Villa is the leading man among his team's cast of stars.

Referee Nicola Rizzoli did not call many fouls, and did not want Wednesday's titanic match-up decided by an early ejection. He kept giving Song, he of the dynamic gray Afro (accompanied by matching whiskers), benefit of the doubt. But Song kept up his dangerous flirtation, seemingly bent on self-destruction and nearly demanding a second yellow card. At one point, Rizzoli pointed to Song and appeared to tell him: Do that again and you are out.

A minute after Villa's goal, a Barcelona player tried to add injury to insult, diving after a whiff of contact with Song. He hoped Song would draw the red card that would force Arsenal to play a man down. This would have been the end, since few teams on the planet could beat Barcelona even if they had an extra man—aside from Real Madrid, Barcelona's rival in Spain's La Liga. How dominant is Barcelona? This is a team that can afford to pay its sponsor, rather than be paid for sponsorship. The brand on Barcelona's shirts is UNICEF.

But Rizzoli, controlling the game brilliantly—there was no stoppage time in the first half at all— didn't fall for the dive, but did give out a yellow to Arsenal's Nasri for an unrelated infraction.

At the 37 minute mark, Messi put a header into the Arsenal goal, and that would have been too high a mountain for the Gunners to climb had it counted. But the ref immediately waved off the goal: Messi was offside.

The second half resumed with the same intensity as the first 45 minutes, with Arsenal working hard all the time, getting their share of shots, keeping the ball away from their side of the field as much as possible. Not that it matters much: Barcelona's players pass the round ball with their feet with the elegance, precision and giddy joy of the Harlem Globetrotters doing a basketball exhibition. Barcelona can break your heart with a fast break in a heartbeat.

To show how overwhelming Barcelona's passing was, Fox Soccer Channel at the 60 minute mark showed a telling statistic: After one hour of play, Barcelona had completed 412 passes to Arsenal's 203.

But passes, even pretty passes, aren't points. At 67 minutes, Messi again nearly silenced the devoted Arsenal throng, just missing a left footer that looked like it was going inside the post.

A new sense of urgency gripped Arsenal: somehow, they not only maintained their intensity, they increased it, playing with firm discipline and, despite trailing, a sense of inevitability. Then it happened: Robin Van Persie, who had been close to breaking through all afternoon, scored the equalizer with 12 minutes left in regular time.

Announcer Martin Tyler was keenly attuned to the shift in momentum. "Barcelona, the great Barcelona, is on the back foot here. Barcelona is feeling the pinch."

In New York, one wondered if Tyler—hoping for an Arsenal win, while always respecting Barcelona—was indulging in wishful thinking. But he appeared to be right. Arsenal had been playing a goal down as if they were even: Their confidence never waned. Five minutes later, in the 83rd minute, Arsenal went on a fast break, a pass half the length of the field, caught at the right place at the right time and passed to the Russian substitute Andrei Arshavin. Goal! Now Arsenal had the lead.

But this was mighty Barcelona, and they did not crumble. But neither did Arsenal get carried away with their advantage. The final seven minutes were fierce; Van Persie drew a yellow card at 85 minutes, and as regular time expired and two minutes of stoppage time had to be endured, there were two moments when Barca seemed about to nail a second goal and leave London with a tie. But the ball just would not go in for Barcelona, and when it was over, well, it was over, and those red and white scarves waving through the Arsenal stadium made it look like Christmas. For their team to finally beat Barcelona, it surely must have felt like it.

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