Gunners’ Champions League dream dies early at the Emirates
It was a terrible night to be an Arsenal supporter. The game was over almost before it started and the great spectacle that everyone anticipated never had a chance to materialize. And with that sour taste in our mouths, the Champions League dream is gone for another campaign.
Here’s the really hard part: we just weren’t good enough to win. Arsene Wenger got the selection right. Granted, we didn’t have our first choice defenders available, but our strongest midfield and strike force were on the pitch. The best strikers we have to offer started up front. The most creative and threatening midfield we had at our disposal were lined up across the middle. If Manchester United were vulnerable, then this was the team that could test their resolve. But we never did. We conceded two goals within twelve minutes and the game and the tie were dead before we had a chance to mount any real challenge.
Let me say this at least; the game started brightly. There were moments before Park scored the opening goal that lead you to believe we might have what it takes. It almost seems silly in retrospect to say that we could have gotten the result today, but for the first eight or nine minutes, United actually looked unsettled. We were on the front foot and asking questions of their defense. The Emirates crowd was in amazing voice. I’ve never heard any Arsenal crowd sound like that. If anyone was worried about the atmosphere for this game, all questions were answered before the game started. You couldn’t hear a single bar of the Champions League anthem as it was drowned out by the singing crowd.
As the game started the crowd reached a fever pitch and the Gunners seemed ready to match their intensity. But the first goal was fearsome sucker punch. It came at the expense of a Kieran Gibbs slip and took the wind out of every supporter’s sail. I’m sure Arsenal could have righted the ship given a few minutes to steady themselves, but those precious minutes never came. Cristiano Ronaldo, who really did have an annoyingly fantastic night, put the match to bed before the twelfth minute with a free kick that beat Manuel Almunia at his near post. It was dreadful keeping but Almunia was the only reason that we had a chance to begin with so it’s hard to place to much blame at his feet.
After the second goal the rest of the game didn’t matter. We weren’t going to score four goals. We knew it and United knew it. So analyzing the game beyond the second goal is pointless. After twelve minutes the tie was dead and the night was over for Arsenal. Why bother pointing out our shortcomings in this game when we really never had a chance to show what we’re about. I’d rather look at the game from this perspective: we started brightly, suffered an early blow from an honest mistake, and lost the opportunity to compete for the tie early on. We weren’t good tonight, but we weren’t playing for anything so it’s hard to know what to make of our performance. What we do know is that Manchester United are better than Arsenal, and that will have to be addressed.
For all intents and purposes, our season is now over. We will finish fourth in the league regardless of our how we fare in our remaining fixtures. While we can certainly try to prove our mettle against Chelsea and United in the league, it won’t be a consolation for tonight’s loss. We must accept our fate. The real question is what to make of our season now that the results are in. That’s something that we will all be thinking about over the next few weeks but it would be pointless to answer at this moment. It’s only natural tonight to be in mourning.
While I find myself hugely disappointed tonight, I want to remind everyone that we were probably fortunate to find ourselves in the semi-finals. I’m sure if you had been offered a semi-final appearance last November, you would have been overjoyed to accept the generosity. We were probably fortunate to meet a fourth place team in the round of 16 and a fourth place team in the quarter-finals, but we still beat those teams without the services of some of our better players. That’s certainly a notable achievement. But if we want to be champions of England or Europe, then Arsene Wenger has some real soul searching to do. We’re not ready to beat United, and maybe not ready to beat Chelsea or Liverpool.
Our players are young, but their inadequacy might have nothing to do with their age. Players like Van Persie, Adebayor and Fabregas are certainly old enough to make an impact and unfortunately they didn’t do that this season. We’ll all give Cesc a pass considering his injury woes, but the strikers are not good enough in my opinion. I’m leaning towards thinking that Bendtner, Vela, Eduardo, and even Arshavin and Theo are all better long term options in attack than RVP or Ade. Van Persie gets a lot of affection from the Gunners faithful, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s deserved. This season he finally maintained his health reasonably well, but his goal return was not markedly different than Bendtner’s.
Ade, on the other hand, as been a source of controversy among Arsenal supporters. Let me be clear, I have backed him all season long. I was the one loud voice in the summer that believed he was an integral part of this team. Through it all, I believed that his professionalism and talent would ultimately shine through. I have abandoned that position. He should be leaving this summer and Arsenal will be a better team when he is gone. Adebayor has brought discredit to himself and his club.
It’s completely acceptable for a player to underperform. That happens to atheletes. At various times this season Arsenal have had players perform below their ability and the supporters have shown leniency. But to show lack of concerted effort in each of the two biggest games of the season is without a doubt unacceptable. Adebayor showed his lack of respect for the club by making his return to fitness not for Arsenal, but for his national team. He has further shown a lack of respect for the club with his lazy play. If you take away the acrobatic wonder goal that he scored against Villareal, his contribution this season has been lamentable. But tonight he really covered himself in shame with a tackle that he’s lucky did not result in a broken ankle. If he really cares enough about the game to commit a foul like that out of frustration, maybe he should show his committment in his attacking play. It’s unfortunate that his biggest failure has come on such a big stage. His asking price in the summer will certainly have suffered from his play over these two legs.
No one was brilliant tonight and the game gave little opportunity for anyone to shine. It’s a sad result and a sad way to end a Champions League campaign. But it’s probably a fair result and no less then what we deserve. We’re not good enough to be in the CL final. Anyone who believes otherwise is really just denying the plain truth before their eyes.
It’s easy to see a result like this and want to throw the entire team under a bus. It’s understandable to feel very frustrated. But we are still a young side and there’s still loads of potential. Theo, Nasri, Cesc and of course Arshavin are all quality players. Sagna, and Clichy are class defenders and Manuel Almunia looks as though he is developing into our ‘keeper of the future.
From there, however, there are big questions. Questions that will need to be asked. Questions that will need to be answered. But those questions are for another moment. For now, we all live with the immediate disappointment. Another season has come and gone without silverware for Arsenal. As the landscape of modern football continues to change in favor of big money clubs with wealthy owners, we may have to accept that our opportunities will be limited. That makes it even more difficult to get this close and miss out. Hopefully, we will find the players we need this summer and have a chance to come this close to European glory next season.
Tomorrow, Thierry Henry has a chance to qualify for another CL final. I will be rooting for him as though he were still an Arsenal player. If we can’t win the Champions League, I would certainly like to see him get the one trophy that has eluded him during his spectacular career.
Once again, kudos to the supporters at the Emirates who created a wonderful atmosphere, even if it only lasted 10 minutes.