Soccer

Champions League Analysis: Barcelona v. Arsenal

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"If he throws an elbow, you hit him in the mouth." -- Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight in the 2002 ESPN Original Entertainment, "A Season on the Brink."
Champions League Round of 16: Barcelona 4, Arsenal 3

Mercifully after 180 minutes of glorious soccer between the two most glamorous, transcendent clubs in world football, we didn't need the dreaded away goals rule to determine a winner. Soccer, as a game, is about as simple as it gets. Put the ball in the net, don't use your hands. Some of the regulations, though, are more Byzantine than the Articles of Confederation.

It's probably easier to explain to my 89-year-old grandmother the Infield Fly Rule, than to explain to a non-soccer head how two-legged Champions League ties are decided via the uber-European concept of "away goals."

Arsenal fans worldwide, of course, wish away goals were the topic of the day.

Instead, Tuesday's proceeding at the Camp Nou were fairly straightforward. Arsenal held a narrow 2-1 edge going into the second leg. Ahead of the match Arsene Wenger said the Gunners -- with a healthy Robin van Persie -- would attack, trying to keep Barcelona on the back heel. It seemed like a sound plan, with both Barca center backs, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique missing the match.

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Didn't exactly happen that way as Arsenal were pinned in deep and tried to accomplish the near impossible -- keep Barcelona, angels in soccer cheats as it were, off the scoreboard. There are few ways to accomplish that Herculean feat, barring an angry, vengeful God opening up the heavens and collecting Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets back to their rightful place in the clouds.

One way, is to embrace the dark arts of soccer like Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan did last season. Bend the rules as far as you can without breaking them to fluster and frustrate Barcelona. It certainly helps when you have players like Lucio, Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti and Maicon. Even with all those pros, Inter "lost" the leg at the Camp Nou 1-0. Arsenal had to rely on Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Abou Diaby as well as the clearly hobbled Cesc Fabregas.

In the dressing room before the match Wenger should've considered playing "Guns of Brixton" by the Clash, with it's line, "You can crush us, you can bruise, but you have to answer to ..." Arsenal had to be willing to use every once of graft and mettle it had -- embracing a Bobby Knight/Mourinho street fight mentality.

Tuesday wasn't about stringing together 16 pass movements or playing beautiful soccer. It was about getting dirty and doing things by any means necessary. Get mad, get angry, defend in numbers, throw bodies in front of balls. ... And keep your head in the process.

Instead, it was a more predictable anthem from "London Calling" that carried the day at the Camp Nou -- "Spanish Bombs." (Of course the actual song at halftime was Black Eyed Peas filth. Vomit.)

You pretty much knew it wasn't going to be Arsenal's day when Wojciech Szczesny had to come off barely 20 minutes into the match with a finger injury. Manuel Almunia -- looking more strung out than ever -- did play well, but when Arsenal's 20-year-old keepers now have bones made out of glass, it's not a good omen.

Barcelona doesn't usually need any help, but it got boosts from Fabregas' ill-timed, baffling missed backheel at the edge of his own penalty area, which set up Messi's first goal in first half stoppage time. The lack of focus by Fabregas is inexcusable for a player of his caliber, saying nothing of his long-term flirtation with Barcelona. Credit Messi for the sublime two touches to set up the goal. He makes it look too easy. The more you watch it, the more you realize how surreal that first little bunny-hop flick to himself was. He is, after all, "a Playstation" lest we forget.

Then, Swiss official Massimo Busacca (naturally) made an impact, sending off Robin van Persie for kicking a ball away -- aka dissent -- for the Dutchman's second yellow of the match early in the second half. The day we meet a ref with a sense of perspective, it's the first. Dreadful call, but van Persie should have been cautious playing with that first yellow.

Stuff like this leaves a bad taste in your mouth, regardless of who you're rooting for. Making you feel all the more despondant is that FIFA despot Sepp Blatter probably got up from his poolside lounge chair in Dubai to applaud his countryman for making the right call. As Ryan Babel would say, "SMH."

Arsenal did get a sliver of hope when Samir Nasri won a corner, which was subsequently headed into his own goal by Sergio Busquets. This shock almost gave me a crisis of faith, worthy of the silver screen. Busquets is the best player in the world ... assuming you're an elite-minded soccer snob. A guy of his overall class and pedigree should never even make an errant pass, let alone score an own goal. If Barcelona lost because of that, I might have walked out of my house and headed west, stopping after a few hundred miles of soul-searching.

Didn't matter much.

Xavi (sans halo) scored a pretty sweet goal on a delightful pass from Iniesta and Messi later calmly converted a penalty.

Arsenal had one more chance, but Javier Mascherano made an out-of-nowhere tackle to trip up Nic Bendtner late in the second half -- amazingly avoiding a penalty in the process. Would it have been different if it was van Persie in that spot instead of the big Dane? Cold comfort for Gunners fans.

In the end, Barcelona was Barcelona. Eventually they'll move the heavens and score some goals. Arsenal needed a perfectly executed gameplan and probably a little bit of luck to find a way into the Champions League quarterfinals. The Gunners got neither.

To quote another line from the laughably bad "A Season on the Brink" movie, "Playing my game is what got you here."

Arsenal's slick passing game wins a lot of the time. It was good enough to put them in position to advance in the Champions League and most of the time is fun watch. Problem is, Barcelona plays the same way -- only better.

And to rub salt in the wounds, Barcelona play that way and win trophies.