Defeat to Barca started Arsenal decline
Clubs met as relative equals in 2006 – then started going in opposite directions
It is worth recalling that Arsenal were leading Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in the second leg of the 2011 round-of-16 tie, with an away goal in the bag, and 56 minutes on the clock, when Robin van Persie was sent off for a second yellow card in the Nou Camp for kicking the ball away.
Which is not to say that the great, hypnotic waves of Barcelona passing would not have got them in the end. Or that, given the chance, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta might just have dismantled Arsenal anyway, as they did Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United team at Wembley that season. But it was not quite the clunking knockout blow that one tends to assume when you recall Arsenal’s recent history as a declining force in Europe.
Van Persie called the decision a “total joke” – he said he had not even heard the whistle telling him play had stopped – and Arsene Wenger had that thin-lipped post-match fury when he accused the Swiss referee of having “killed the game”. Even so, Arsenal were out in the second round, as they went on to be for the following four seasons, and Barcelona went on to the third of four modern Champions League titles, a run that began when they beat Arsenal in the final in 2006.
When Wenger’s club were drawn yesterday against Barcelona, the greatest club of the modern era, in the Champions League round of 16, it was that final in Paris nine years ago that felt like the major point of divergence between the two clubs. By 2011, Barcelona had already won the Champions League again in 2009, and the Pep Guardiola-Messi era had supplanted the Frank Rijkaard-Ronaldinho days. In 2006, the two clubs were much better matched, albeit not for much longer.
At that point, Barcelona had won the Spanish title four times in the previous 10 years, including that season, 2005-’06. Arsenal had been Premier League champions three times in the past 10 years. Barcelona were the favourites for the final but it was close. Arsenal had the likes of Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.
It was their last season at Highbury, and they began picking up the tab for the Emirates Stadium in the following years. Three starters in the final alone eventually moved to Barcelona: Henry, Fabregas and Alexander Hleb.
Cole went to Chelsea. Dennis Bergkamp retired. Wenger was left to adroitly manage the decline. Barcelona, meanwhile, have won five domestic titles since that season and have, bar the occasional season of displacement, reigned as the greatest club side in Europe.
Just as Arsenal and Wenger were about to have their wings clipped, so Barcelona were about to take advantage of the best group of home-grown players in their history, led by the incomparable Messi. For Arsenal, 2006 was the end of Wenger’s first 10 years in the job, the final peak of a sequence that began with the unbeaten league title in 2004, followed by the 2005 FA Cup triumph and that push for a first European Cup which they have never been close to capturing since.
Without wishing to reduce this to money, Barcelona’s annual revenue has grown to £435million, well ahead of Arsenal’s £344million, while the perception is that much more striking. In 2013, it was Arsenal whom Luis Suarez wanted to join, and Steven Gerrard who sensed that his then Liverpool team-mate could be persuaded against it.
“If you are a South American player the lure of Barca or Madrid is almost impossible to resist,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “But Arsenal?”
Arsenal’s best player, Alexis Sanchez is, essentially, one whom, although highly regarded, was expendable at Barcelona.
The momentum built by the club, with Messi at their heart, in the years after they won that 2006 final, the inspired appointment of Guardiola, the loyalty of their top players and the growing commercial power to be able to sign the very best has moved them far beyond Arsenal.
The last 10 years have not been so kind to Wenger although he has experienced a re-emergence on the domestic front in the past couple of seasons and is back on top of the table.
It is hard to overstate what eliminating Barcelona would mean to the confidence of a team who should be capable of winning the club’s first Premier League title since 2004.
Back in the 2006 final, there was another debatable sending off when, with the score at 1-0, Jens Lehmann brought down Samuel Eto’o and the referee, Terje Hauge, blew for the foul rather than giving himself more time, and allowing the subsequent goal by Ludovic Giuly to stand. There were fewer grounds for argument when Messi scored all four goals in a 4-1 win for Barcelona over Arsenal in the quarter-final second leg of 2011, a 6-3 win on aggregate.
In seven Champions League games, going back to 1999, Wenger’s Arsenal have beaten Barcelona just once, in the first leg in 2011, and never over a two-legged tie.
Since 2006, Arsenal have long been regarded at times as a brittle, more vulnerable version of the great Barcelona and as of yesterday’s draw, the thought may occur to their manager that this could be his last chance to prove that theory wrong. (© Daily Telegraph, London)