Tuesday 20 February 2018

It only takes a second to find an escape from brutal reality

Dion Fanning

W hen you put yourself on the high moral ground, sooner or later you'll be revealed as a hypocrite.

Robin van Persie's sending off in the Nou Camp last week managed to conceal the reality of Arsenal's performance in Barcelona. Faced with the tantalising prospect that they could win a game by defending a lead, they tried to defend a lead.

In doing so they summoned the spirit of Blackburn, Stoke and Bolton Wanderers but without their resolve. Arsenal have the Corinthian spirit in one sense: they play like they're amateurs.

Even Cesc Fabregas was addled when he had a brain freeze and tried the backheel that led to Lionel Messi's goal.

Again, this was Arsenal trying to be what they are not. Fabregas is not the type of player to do something rash on the edge of his box. He may have a wearying insistence on talking with a pious superiority about Arsenal's football but Fabregas's judgement on the pitch is exceptional.

For him to suddenly start playing like Steven Gerrard, giddy with excitement and nervous tension, was an example of what was happening to Arsenal, how Barcelona had scrambled their brains.

They may have had other ambitions before Barcelona took the ball off them and didn't give it back, destroying Arsenal and warping Arsene Wenger's mind, his poor, poor mind, but it was hard to tell.

Wenger is a genius but so was Fitzcarraldo. Wenger talked about Barcelona's "sterile domination'' and engaged in the pursuit of the preposterous and the fanciful. He has been driven mad by this team he championed, by this cause which he believed in, as if believing so strongly in something necessarily made it right.

By the end of the week, he had entered dangerous if not uncharted territory when he tried to explain the effect Van Persie's sending-off had on the game.

Things would have been different if Van Persie had stayed on, he explained. He was certain that Arsenal would have had a shot if it had stayed 11 versus 11.

This may have been a very good joke. He may have been turning the conventional notions about Arsenal and their attacking prowess on its head or he may have felt this was important, that if Van Persie had stayed on the pitch Arsenal would have fulfilled their ambitions and got a shot away at some point.

Van Persie's sending off was another example of how the mob goes rushing the wrong way. Once it had been established that it was only a second from the referee's whistle to Van Persie taking his shot, this became the story. Soon everyone was talking about this second as if it was almost impossible for Van Persie to have reacted and stopped himself from shooting in this time.

Van Persie said he didn't hear the whistle so the one-second delay had nothing to do with it. More importantly, it is the linesman's flag, not the referee's whistle, which we traditionally see as the arbiter for offside. Van Persie, with his top, top, top sportsman's peripheral vision, could easily have noticed the flag as he tracked the ball's arc to his foot.

If he didn't know he was offside, why then did he shoot so swiftly with his weaker foot when he was through on goal? He had time to get the ball on his left foot and score or, at least, achieve a key Arsenal objective and get a shot on target.

At the kindest interpretation, it was a lack of professionalism from Van Persie or it could have been that the one act of real gamesmanship Arsenal managed to pull off in the game ended with their own man being sent off.

Pep Guardiola was right. One of the key differences between Arsenal and Barcelona is that Barcelona are doing everything to win. They happen to believe that the way they play is the best way to do that but on Tuesday, when they needed to win, Arsenal decided to play another way, to abandon all they held dear.

There is nothing wrong with that, they have joined the ranks of the pragmatic. At the Nou Camp, they were just another side trying to cling on, doing whatever it took.

Wenger was a man forced to come face to face with a reality which totally contradicted the one he had constructed in his head. He was like one of those men led away outside Leinster House when the Austrian President visits insisting that they are, in fact, the head of the House of Habsburg.

Wenger was dealing with an uncomfortable truth and against Barcelona everybody has to.

Barcelona remain on a different plane and Arsenal will have difficulty rediscovering their poise as well as their place on the moral high ground. In the last weeks, they have revealed something: they may only know one way to play and win, but, when it comes to losing, they know plenty.

* * * * *

The ongoing contribution of men like Mario Balotelli and Nani to our industry cannot be overestimated. Balotelli's allergic reaction in Kiev to the "wrong type of grass" last week disproves once again that, as some like to wail, "the characters have gone from the game".

Many laughed when Nani cried as he was cut in two by Jamie Carragher last week. I would have felt more comfortable joining in had I not wept uncontrollably at Turner & Hooch, Marley & Me (not just the touching dog bits -- I broke down when he got a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer) -- and Toy Story 3, which was billed as the film men could acceptably weep at and some of us took full advantage.

Nani was also mentioned in reports from the case against Stewart Downing's former agent. Downing's spending was relatively frugal, certainly in comparison to Nani who had a marble statue of himself commissioned.

The imposing statues of Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and Billy Bremner that stand outside Anfield, Old Trafford and Elland Road would be less impressive if we discovered they had paid for them themselves. But Nani did, making his own statue if not his own luck.


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