Monday 11 December 2017

Gunners off ropes to give Wenger fighting chance

James Lawton

James Lawton

For the first few rounds, sorry, minutes, it was impossible not to have the sense of a pitifully one-sided fight. You could even name one of the fighters, Muhammad Ali, representing Barcelona.

And while it may have been blasphemous to even think it, there was hardly any other way to put it. Arsenal could have been any old Joe Palooka.

Yes, they were that outclassed as Baracelona unfured some of best of their skills.

But then of course there is a cardinal rule in the ring and on a football field or any conflict where the decisive factors include nerve and skill.

It is to stay on your feet and do the best you can. It is not likely Arsenal did quite enough in one of the most staggering recoveries seen at the highest level of the European game to press on into the semi-finals of Camp Nou next week.

They will be without their captain and inspiration Cesc Fabregas, who coolly equalised from the penalty spot in the second half and rallied himself under the shadow of injury -- and the fact that a yellow card meant he would miss the return. They have to overcome the weight of Barca's two away goals and have to think only that they have to win in the Catalan fortress.

It is a desperate challenge, indeed, but after they recovered from the blows delivered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic early in the second half, when he scored the two goals that seemed to announce Arsenal's disintegration, they must be given the privilege of right of believing that they might just be able play their way out of this corner.


They did, after all, have to rebuild from the ground floor all of the highest ambitions. It is hard, certainly, to over-state the extent of the mastery Barcelona displayed in that early going.

They were not only swept away from the centre of the ring and into the ropes. They were not only rendered virtual bystanders by a style and a bite that seemed to come from an entirely different level.

They were cut into a hundred pieces, mostly by the unfathomable talent of Lionel Messi but with any number of acolytes, and most notably Xavi Hernandez, willing to help work the sweetest of combinations, there was a terrible verdict to pass on the dream of European conquest so long nurtured by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

Yet a fight is never over until the last bell rings or a man is counted out and miraculously Arsenal remained on their feet, even after those clubbing goals from at a time when they might have felt they had survived the worst of the pressure.

You had to have believed, as Messi weaved his exquisite patterns, that Wenger had been nursing a myth these last four years since Barca proved themselves too guileful in the Champions League final at the Stade de France. Had he also been setting himself up for a crushing fall when on the eve of battle he said that his team were going to fight the champions of European on their own superb terms?

It was the kind of promise around which Wenger has been lifting the hopes of English football for so long, not emptily but with so much football of wonderful vision and poise, but he cannot have given himself a morsel hope in that early going.

Yet now he is alive again after Theo Walcott, a pale imitation of the player who struck such a dazzling figure in Croatia on behalf of England, reconjured something of that impact with a goal that first stretched any sense of reality.

And then when Fabregas stroked home the penalty that brought respect and a new hope to a team who had been threatened not so much with defeat but quite terrible humiliation, Wenger was entitled to believe that he had come out of one of the worst nights of his football life with something on which to build again.

With Fabregas absent and probably William Gallas also missing next week, Wenger still faces a huge battle against the most imposing odds.

He has to fear that what Barcelona threatened to produce so murderously, so early last night, with a torrent of shots and some marvellously intuitive football, will be delivered in front of their own people.

It is a possibility that can not be discounted, especially if Andreas Iniesta, the missing diamond in Barca's midfield last night, is able to return at the Camp Nou for the return leg.

However, for a little while last night Arsene Wenger had no reason to believe in anything but the escape of a dark might and the anguish of a awful reappraisal of his best hopes. That may still happen next week, but there is something to hang on to more than than the ropes.

It is the conviction that if his team were pushed to the edge of a terrible defeat, if they came so close to being discredited as serious rivals to Barcelona in the matter of some of the game's refinements, they didn't forget how to fight.

They may just be able to reinvent some of their skills. However, they do not have to go out looking for new hearts -- which is always a help in the toughest fights.

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