It has never done anybody any good to lament over ‘what if’ and ‘what might have been’. Then again, what else are we going to do?
The dust still hasn’t properly settled after a night of Champions’ League football that has never so succinctly summed up the meaning of the word bitters-weet. Sweet in that we witnessed a great team in Arsenal being dismantled by some of the best football we are ever likely to see and bitter in that a refereeing decision became the pivotal moment in what was turning out to be a genuinely enthralling and competitive encounter.
People have pointed out the fact that no Arsenal player had a shot on or off target and that Barcelona kept possession of the football for about 70 percent of the time. When you look at it now it seems very persuasive to say that Arsene Wenger’s side were completely outplayed and soundly beaten but that would be short sighted.
It’s hard not to make excuses but we must look at the game in detail and see how big a difference the Van Persie red card made. It was obvious looking on that Arsenal had set out to keep it tight in the first half and were happy to concede possession, while not giving Barca any real chance of the early goal they craved for momentum.
This worked up until the very last minute when concentration broke and a silly mistake was capitalised on with breathtaking skill and accuracy by Iniesta and Messi. You can’t say a lot other than it was bound to happen at some point but the north Londoners, up until then, had done a pretty efficient job of frustrating the Catalan side in the majority of attacks.
The second half began immediately with Arsenal showing exactly the kind of attacking ambition many have claimed they were missing and a goal came early because of it. Samir Nasri went on a good run on the left and won a corner, which was subsequently popped into his own goal by Sergio Busquets.
At this point Arsenal were going through and Barca would have to have had a more attacking and, most importantly, less patient approach to getting another goal. We should not underestimate the fact that Barca had shown obvious signs of fatigue in the first leg and that Arsenal and capitalised on this with great effect.
It was also another quick counter attack that led to the sending off – Barca had shown their anxiety and vulnerability very quickly after conceding and to imagine a repeat of what happened at Emirates Stadium previously is not a great stretch.
The sending off of Van Persie effectively ended the game as a competitive spectacle. You don’t want to lose a man against any team but Barcelona are surely the side most capable of exploiting a numerical advantage and exploit it they did.
However, a feeling of injustice could prove to be a psychological saviour for Arsenal. In recent years mental fragility has partnered the fatigue that comes with the closing end of the season and a defeat such as this may have signalled collapse. This time around there is something to hold on to – the belief that had the match stayed 11 vs 11 they would have a genuine chance of repeating the heroics of the first leg.
This could be galvanising in that many managers and teams use perceived injustice as a tool to regroup and reaffirm belief in a damaged squad. The test of this comes almost immediately and the prospect of facing Man Utd – who have their own finely balanced Champions’ League second leg to follow – brings a sense of finality to any healing work that may need to be done.
It is hardly the ideal contest to move on to but there is at least the fact that going to Old Trafford rarely allows any room for complacency.
A heartbreaking evening to swallow but it must be let go and we must accept it and even be grateful that we are lucky to be able to witness a team of such staggering quality in our lifetime.
Through all this, thoughts of what might have been may be the key to spurring Arsene Wenger and his side onto realising what this season can still become. Onwards and upwards.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.