Thursday, March 10, 2011

My Nou Camp experience!

So 12 months after the last encounter between Arsenal and Barcelona, this was to be Arsenal’s time. Older, tougher, more mature and leading from the first leg, Arsenal had their chance to shine to the world. To show that Arsene Wenger’s beautiful football could triumph over that of Barcelona ... but it wasn't to be ... another disappointment, but in a game that was spoiled by shocking refereeing.

As soon as the draw was made for the knock out stages of the Champions League, I booked my flights. We were going to be away skiing for the first leg at the Emirates, but the second leg at the Nou Camp? My ever flowing confidence and optimism compelled me to book the trip full in the belief that was a tie we (Arsenal) could win.

The teams emerging, and Arsenal still full of hope!

At the time, we were fighting on four fronts. The Carling Cup, the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Premier League. Following the first leg of the Champions League tie with Barca, we hit an absolute peak. An astounding, outstanding and well deserved victory (after going 1-0 down) along with Manchester United losing to Chelsea in the league. Confidence could not have been higher ... but oh how quickly the tide turns. A shocking defeat at Wembley in the Carling Cup final, points dropped in the league, and a knock out defeat at Barcelona in the Champions League second leg, now leaves us with a possible two out of four trophies to play for. Both or either would be very welcome, but how does this young team deal with the most recent body blow to their confidence. On one hand I can see a defeat at Old Trafford this coming weekend to end our FA cup hopes, and anything less than a victory in the league the following week will end our Premiership chances. That would be 4 competitions lost in as many weeks ... or do the team turn it around? With less to play for, can they focus and run out the season with victories all around? Fingers crossed, let's wait and see.

So I reached Barcelona on Monday night. Flying out from Dubai and stops in London for meetings on the way out to and back from Barcelona. I had to justify the trip to myself!

On good advice, I stayed at the Princess Sofia hotel in Barcelona. Just 200 yards from the Nou Camp stadium and it was also where the Arsenal team was staying.

I had the good fortune to meet Pat Rice (Arsenal legend and Assistant Manager) in the hotel lobby on Tuesday morning after breakfast. He wasn't giving anything away about the player’s plans and any chance I may get to see or meet them. Fair enough ... So I did the only sensible thing I could ... I took my iPad and camped out in the lobby while I stalked the elevators for a chance sighting of one of my heroes. It wasn't happening, and as lunchtime approached I gave up!

I was invited for a spectacular Japanese lunch to a restaurant called Koy Shunka. Very rich and very fresh. Named by some as the best Japanese restaurant in the world ... the food was definitely outstanding, but for me, perhaps not authentic enough to give it such a grand title.

As any typical Spanish lunch, I was back in the hotel at 5pm and the atmosphere around the hotel and the Nou Camp was starting to heat up. It seemed the whole city was starting to buzz. Was this because Barca was playing Arsenal, or does this happen for every match, regardless of the opposition?

At 8pm I headed down to the stadium, and this was an experience. While not as glamorous as The Emirates, the Nou Camp is legendary. The imposing near vertical terraces seat close to 100,000 people and the noise those dedicated Barca fans can generate has to be experienced to be understood.

So the game was about to kick off, and I was full of hope. Fabregas was back and so, surprisingly, was Van Persie. For me, this gave us a great chance. Our captain and play maker along with our star in-form center forward. With Barca lacking Puyol and Pique in central defense, we had a chance to break through them.

But that's not what happened! Barca started strongly and continued strongly. Arsenal, a team known for their passing and possession, were "out Arsenal'd". Barca took the first half with an astonishing 70% possession. We couldn't get the ball, and when we did, we couldn't string more than 3-4 passes together before losing it again. Nasri was trying and had some fleeting moments, but Fabregas was way off his best. Was he still injured, nervous, or perhaps just trying to show off (and failing) in front of his home town crowd? Rosicky and Diaby under performed, and only Jack Wilshere held it together to show that he truly will be (if not already) one of the greatest players in the world. Van Persie didn't get any service, but our defense impressed and I felt they held a tight line and kept Barca at bay. With all their possession, 6-7 shots for the first half was nothing and it looked like we would hold out till have time ... until the unnecessary showboating of Fabregas caught us out. Smack in front of goal and on the edge of our penalty area, he tries a back heel and gifts Barca possession and Messi a goal! Level on goals and Barca with an "away goal" advantage now meant that Arsenal had to score in the second half. That certainly meant the game had to come alive.

As soon as they came out, Arsenal showed they were up for it. Barca still dominated, but now Arsenal were starting to play also. Some of the game was being played in the Barca half and it was 8 minutes into the second period when we equalised. I put my life at risk with a cheer I couldn't contain (amongst a block of 5,000 Barca fans) when the goal went in, but I escaped unscathed and relished the moment!

World greats on display: Messi, Xavi and Fabregas

Just as well, as this gave us the upper hand and for the best part of 60 seconds, Barca had been rocked ... but then, so quickly, it all turned sour. The most ridiculous red card I have ever seen. Robin van Persie dismissed for the kicking the ball 1 second after the whistle was blown. No consideration by the referee that he may not have heard the whistle amongst the noise of 95,000 screaming Barcelona fans, and no consideration for the match circumstances. This of course changed the game. Barca went on to dominate and added 2 more goals, and the few times we reached as far as the half way line, we had no one up front to run and make a challenge.

As the current Barcelona team are widely acknowledged as the best football team EVER, we were always going to be up against the wall in this fixture. Maybe it would have been the same result if RvP was not sent off, but the sad thing is, we'll never know! And that's what spoils it for me. I can accept the defeat, but I can't accept that we were robbed of the chance to go out and really give it a fair go and for us spectators to have had the chance to watch a potentially great spectacle.

The moment before Messi puts the final nail in our coffin

So I'm returning home now after a memorable but fast trip. I met some great new people along the way and am glad to have experienced seeing my team at the Nou Camp.

Now with the glamour of the Champions League gone, we have to focus back on domestic honours. It’s Old Trafford on Saturday for (another) make or break game for the season.

I think the team have to hold their heads up high after Barcelona. There is no shame in their result. Feel proud of how they played (over 2 legs) and go and take on Man United in full confidence.

I'm still dreaming of a victory and Wembley and at least one piece of silverware at the end of this season. We will know very soon if this is to be!

1 comment:

  1. As a passionate Gooner since 1976 I agree with everything you wrote sir ! Let's watch a game together one of these days ! Keep the faith although AW will have a hard time lifting spirits this week...Aly R