Mastering the dark arts of winning

With Messi, Iniesta and Xavi in their ranks, Barcelona may play heavenly football but they’re no angels

Viral Shah

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If there was one thing more predictable than Barcelona’s victory over Arsenal at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, it was the failure of the Sky Sports punditry team to come up with any original analysis of what had just happened.

Ex-Arsenal star Paul Merson, on Sky Sports News, compared his former club to a Conference team in a vaguely amusing, but incoherent babble. In the stadium itself, Sky Sports regular Jamie Redknapp once again illustrated his feeble grasp of the English language, confidently asserting that ‘Barcelona literally passed Arsenal to death’. Sat beside Redknapp was Graeme Souness, who took a break from pleasuring himself over Barcelona’s fine display of possession football to promote Arsenal’s young midfielder Jack Wilshere as a possible Barcelona player, thus adhering to two Sky Sports staples: hyperbole and an appeal to national pride.

It was true that the Catalans dominated the game, the gulf between the teams illustrated very well in the match stats. Barcelona probably completed several thousand passes as Xavi and Iniesta were inevitably described as ‘impish’ and ‘metronomic’ by connoisseurs of tiki-taka everywhere.

The most damning stat was the zero shots Arsenal managed in the entire game. That’s not entirely true. Arsenal forward Robin Van Persie did manage one shot, but was promptly sent off as a result – for playing on after the ref’s whistle had been blown. Admittedly, one whole second did pass between the referee’s whistle and Van Persie’s shot. And, proving typical of an incompetent referee, it was a second that ruined the entire dynamic of the game.

Van Persie could have been sent off earlier for his petulant slap on Barcelona’s Dani Alves, in addition to his rake down Messi’s calf, while three Barcelona players (Abidal, Adriano and Victor Valdes) raised their hands to the throats of Van Persie and Samir Nasri. Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny may have also accumulated enough fouls for two yellow cards, while there was even a late coming together between Andrey Arshavin and Andres Iniesta. All of these incidents were missed by the referee and his four assistants, along with Diaby’s trip on Barcelona’s Argentine genius Lionel Messi in the penalty area.

Barcelona’s superiority almost certainly would have revealed itself eventually, but it is disappointing for the neutral to see the tie effectively killed by that single decision to send Van Persie off.

For a team almost as famous for pretty-patterns football as Barcelona, Arsenal did defend admirably for a team not renowned for sitting back and soaking up the pressure. With 11 men on the pitch, Arsenal were relatively successful in stopping Barcelona from completely opening them up, the notable exception being Cesc Fabregas’ brainless back-heel on the edge of his area that led to Messi’s opening goal.

That changed when Arsenal went down to 10 men, with Barcelona repeatedly opened up Arsenal with incisive passing. Who would have thought that they would meet such inspired resistance from Manuel Almunia? The butter-fingered Spaniard exhibited his excellent reflexes with several point-blank saves and Barcelona’s passing style meant Almunia’s poor organisational skills and aerial ability were never likely to be exposed. However, Barcelona may be a little worried at their failure to convert most of the chances they created and the way that Busquets’ own-goal was a reminder of one of their few weaknesses.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger seemed to miscalculate his starting selection, as Rosicky and Diaby proved ineffective in midfield, then failed to bring on a replacement after Van Persie’s dismissal until the dying minutes when self-proclaimed übermensch Nicklas Bendtner demonstrated his trademark inept first touch to throw away any chance of an improbable aggregate victory when put through on goal by Wilshere. Barcelona were excellent, but Arsenal could have been better, too.

Despite Barcelona’s overwhelming superiority in the football sense, the well-voiced més que un club (‘more than a club’) mantra and the moral high-ground taken by the club is wearing thin. In the post-match interviews, there was little humility from the players, whose comments essentially represented a diatribe against Arsenal’s defensive set-up and an abandonment of their attacking philosophy, without recognising that the brilliance of their own performance and a refereeing blunder were the main causes of Arsenal’s defensive showing.

Indeed, Barcelona may play beautiful football, but they’re not above a bit of gamesmanship, too. For example, when Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny dislocated his finger, Barcelona returned the ball near the corner flag, thus hemming Arsenal deep in their own half. Having accepted shirt sponsorship for the first time in the club’s history – a cool £25million per year from the Qatar Foundation – it looks like the players are determined to do everything necessary on the pitch to win, too.

It is clear that Barcelona are one of the best sides, potentially even the best side, ever. They will, barring a disaster, win the Champions League this season. But one should not forget that these are experienced winners. They are as well versed in the so-called dark arts of the game as all the great teams are, despite what the pundits may say.

Viral Shah is a freelance football writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at LiberoFootball.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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