Barca symphony is left unfinished
Catalan artistry holds fans and rivals spellbound
THE player who salvaged more than a smidgen of hope for Arsenal put it best.
From the bench at the Emirates Stadium, as he watched both the soaring imagination and trigonometric precision of FC Barcelona's football in the first half of Wednesday's Champions League tie, Theo Walcott could only marvel.
"It was like someone was holding a PlayStation controller and moving the figures around," he said.
And even if it was Walcott's own quicksilver intervention in the second half which has just about kept this tie alive, you could not have blamed him if, over cornflakes yesterday morning, he had gazed on the scoreline in the papers, then glanced at the date, and concluded that 2-2 must be an April Fool's joke.
Yes, miraculously, Arsenal are still in this quarter-final. Yes, their fight-back from two down was quite spell-binding. And, yes, to salvage a draw from the jaws of ritual humiliation told of a resilience that their detractors enjoy insinuating does not exist.
Yet, amid all the thrilling theatre of Arsenal's resurgence and Cesc Fabregas's heroics, another thought, perhaps unworthy, nagged away.
To the neutral it felt almost deflating that Barca could not make their carousel ride last for the entire 90 minutes, rather than just the one sublime hour.
For there were times again in that first half when you had to pinch yourself as to whether you might just be watching the loveliest club football side in history. One which, even without its pale fulcrum Andres Iniesta, could, through its workaholic high-pressing and the relentless rhythms of its fabled 'receive, pass, offer' triangles, reduce another team of supposed pass-and-move masters to petrified impotence.
"Those first 45 minutes were the best my team has played," said Barcelona's coach Josep Guardiola, who, if we play along with Walcott's PlayStation comparison, is the trigger-fingered kid who's hooked to the screen all day while his dad, as played by Arsene Wenger, is a split-second too slow on the controls and is left cursing as the ball is consistently whisked away to the other side of the screen.
Barca's best 45 minutes in Guardiola's two seasons? What, superior to either of those two mesmerising halves when they slayed Real 6-2 in Madrid's Bernabeu last year? Better than when they went into the break 4-0 up against Bayern Munich and 4-1 against Lyon in last year's Champions League?
Finer than when they waltzed five past Almeria in just over half an hour? Or when their second-half burst in last year's Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao left even the club's own official website drooling: "Total football is back"?
Of course, we are not talking about flawless diamonds, as evidenced by the late carelessness which ensures this tie is still alive.
Barca have been beaten three times already this season by good footballing sides who have refused to be intimidated. They were knocked out of the Copa del Rey and, too often, have seemed sluggish and overly reliant on Leo Messi's unique gifts. Neither have they yet shaken off Real Madrid in the La Liga battle.
Yet, for all that, Guardiola's Barca are still creating an oeuvre of such grandeur with performances like Wednesday's that, even if you don't yet buy into the idea that six trophies in 2009 -- perhaps the greatest single year by any club -- does not already make them one of the greatest teams of all time, everyone may have to bow by the end of the season should they repeat their La Liga/Champions League double.
You could, of course, argue that they are right up there already, enshrined alongside, say, the Real Madrid sides of the Fifties and Sixties, the Ajax, Bayern or Liverpool masters of the Seventies or the Milan teams of the late Eighties and early Nineties.
On their day, this side will play a game which is not just beyond any other side's capabilities, but beyond their imagination.
When have we been enchanted with 20 minutes of football like Wednesday's opening movement? Sometimes, winning is not everything; not all symphonies have to be finished.
"Anyone who came to the stadium and watched the game will have enjoyed it, which is the point," said their own young conductor Guardiola, in whom an almost childlike idealism resides.
"We play football because we want to give happiness to people". Well, Pep, you are succeeding. Beautifully. (© Daily Telegraph, London)