It didn’t quite turn out to be the 90 minute tornado of movement some had anticipated, but the latest meeting of Arsenal and Barcelona swung, undulated and thrilled. The tempo of the passing from both sides was unbelievable. Barca generally managed to do it with more accuracy, but overall it was simply a pleasure to watch football being the way it should be. Having had a front row seat for Barcelona’s passing exhibition for much of the game, the Gunners showed they’re no slouches when it comes to moving the ball and they showed tremendous resilience to come away from the onslaught with a win.
Arsenal’s swift attacking play ultimately snatched victory from the jaws of a 2nd leg dead rubber, but were it not for the remarkable performance of Wojciech Szczęsny we would be facing a return leg in which the North Londoners would merely be trying to save face. Making his Champions League debut, Arsenal’s rising star looked assured and commanding whilst at the other end, the much decorated Victor Valdes assumed the role of the struggling novice. True, Szczesny didn’t turn in a performance packed with reflex saves or TV friendly full length dives, but he did all those little things that add to something more substantial in up a game defined by coming out on the right side of narrow margins.
What was perhaps most remarkable was the fact in two of his most notable contributions to the Arsenal cause, he didn’t even touch the ball. In the first half he found himself in the sights of Lionel Messi. We’ve surely lost count of how many times when faced with an enthusiastic on-rushing keeper, the best player in the world calmly dinks the ball over the already committed keeper’s head, but on this occasion Szczesny held back slightly, remained as upright as he could and forced Messi into a rethink. There was a moment when Messi clearly wanted to attempt his trademark dink, but the Pole’s technique meant in wasn’t on. He took another touch and in the end skewed his shot narrowly wide. It won’t go down as a save, but it was as important a piece of goalkeeping as Arsenal will likely have all season. In the second half there was a similar situation and once again, Szczesny’s body position and clever use of his legs clearly obstructed Messi’s preferred route to goal. Again the Argentine had to go to plan B and thankfully for Arsenal, plan B ended up in the side-netting. The keeper again didn’t touch the ball, but had a huge influence on Messi missing a straightforward chance.
Throughout the night, Szczesny was alert, commanding and confident. For the Barcelona goal, he only allowed the slightest gap to appear and even then only for a nano-second, but that nano-second probably felt like an eternity for a striker of Villa’s quality. Aside from his non-save saves, Szczesny also made the more conventional saves expected of him. He was good in 1 v 1 situations – getting a vital touch in the Messi goal that was ruled offside. He was quick off his line to defuse dangerous situation both inside and outside his box and was brave when it was called for too.
It probably be his most spectacular of evenings in what is shaping up to be a very promising career, but it was absolutely vital to keeping Arsenal in the tie. Now comes the easy part – repeating the trick at the Camp Nou in a few weeks.