Forget the “purists” – Barcelona’s passing has an end game
Having previously confessed to the heresy of being largely bored by the style of Spain’s “beautifully crafted” triumphs in the European championship and World Cup I went along to the Emirates on Wednesday fully primed to observe another dose of “football for the purist” guaranteed to keep me safely in my seat.
However, even with six of the World Cup-winning side in their side, Barcelona are not Spain and, to my delight, I saw a display of passing with purpose rather than the all-too-familiar passing to go nowhere and there were plenty of “on your feet” moments as they ripped holes in Arsenal’s defence.
Barcelona completed 629 passes with Xavi making more than 100 on his own. Arsenal, who averaged over 500 passes a game in the Champions League this season, managed only 299.
However, for both sides, it was quality not quantity that counted in Arsenal’s 2-1 last 16 first leg win.
Perhaps it is the presence of Argentine front man Lionel Messi that makes Barcelona’s approach that much more purposeful than the national side’s but there was a real feeling, in the first half at least, that the men in “jade” were, with almost every touch, trying to find an opening.
For Spain, possession is everything. Given the option of sending the ball into a dangerous area, where it might create a chance but equally might be collected by an opponent, or alternatively passing it back three metres to the man who just gave it to you, you can put your mortgage on the latter being taken.
On Wednesday Barcelona passed beautifully as, for once, Arsene Wenger might have regretted ownership of the best playing surface in England. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets gave a lesson in touch and feel, but there was an end game in sight.
Four times in the first half-hour, having shifted Arsenal’s players left and right, Barcelona cut them open with an eye-of-the-needle through ball.
Messi almost scored from the first of them, dinking a shot just past the post, and had a goal disallowed for offside from another. David Villa scored their goal from a precise Messi pass while Pedro almost got a second with a clever flick after Arsenal’s centre backs had been filleted again.
That was almost as many chances as Spain created in a month in South Africa last year and had they all been taken, the tie would have been over and people would have been drooling anew over another sublime performance by “the best team in the world”.
However, with the game seemingly safe, Barcelona stopped probing and began crabbing. They took Villa off for Seydou Keita, as Pep Guardiola said later “to solidify the midfield”.
Arsenal went the other way by bringing on the attacking promise of Andrey Arshavin for Alex Song and also throwing on another target man in Nicklas Bendtner.
In five mad minutes Robin van Persie and Arshavin – after three perfect passes – scored and everybody’s memory was seemingly re-programmed.
According to some British newspapers, teenager Jack Wilshere “outshone” Xavi and Iniesta. Cesc Fabregas, who spent an hour chasing shadows, somehow emerged as the player Barcelona wished they’d never let go while centre back Laurent Koscielny was lauded as the new Tony Adams despite being painfully exposed four times in the first half.
That’s how goals change games, and perceptions, and the second leg on March 8 is already pencilled in as a game not to be missed.
PHOTO: Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (2nd L) is surrounded by Arsenal players during their Champions League soccer match at the Emirates stadium in north London, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh