1. It seems sacrilegious to criticize Pep Guardiola for anything, but he made a major mistake pulling David Villa off and that was a factor that turned the game. At the time that Guardiola made the move, Messi and Villa had been making outstanding combinations to take advantage of Arsenal playing a high defensive line. Villa had slipped Messi in for a breakaway that Messi dinked wide; Messi returned the favor and Villa scored Barca’s goal. When Villa came off, Messi lost his partner in the middle of attack. Additionally, the move pushed Andres Iniesta out wide, which further weakened Barca’s offensive presence in the middle of the pitch. The move seemed timid, which is rare for Guardiola. Michael Cox agrees:
Guardiola’s decision to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa on 67 minutes looks like a mistake in hindsight. Barcelona pushed Iniesta forward into the front three but they had less attacking threat – they sat back too much and focused on keeping possession rather than looking for further chances.
Wenger made an attacking switch – Song off, Arshavin on, and Nasri into the middle of the pitch. Those two substitutions happened at the same time, so it wasn’t either manager responding to the other, but it worked nicely for Arsenal. Whilst taking off their holding midfielder was something of a risk, the fact that Barcelona no longer had a driving, attack-minded central midfielder meant it wasn’t an issue. Song’s absence meant Iniesta would have thrived in the centre of midfield – the two were in direct competition.
2. To me, the difference in this Arsenal team and the edition from last year is Jack Wilshere. Over the last several years, Arsenal have had good attacking players (especially when Robin van Persie is healthy), but the midfielders behind them have been suspect. Wilshere is a revelation, an English midfielder who can actually pass the ball. There are a number of troglodytes in England who are going to owe Arsene Wenger an apology when Wilshere gives the Three Lions something they haven’t had in years. Wilshere is the platform off of which Fabregas, Nasri, and Walcott can function. The platform certainly isn’t Alex Song, who didn’t look like he belonged on the pitch.
3. My one obligatory whine about the ref: it was amusing to hear Martin Tyler intone that Arsenal fans thought that Barca was getting all the calls as a replay was playing that showed Barca having a perfectly legitimate second goal ruled out for offside.
4. Victor Valdes, you’ve come so far and then you leave your near post like that? If there is one piece of knowledge upon which you should be able to rely, it’s the knowledge that Robin van Persie will shoot at every possible opportunity.
5. The 2-1 result makes for an interesting second leg. Barca have progressed with road draws in five Champions League knock-out ties under Guardiola and they were knocked out after a 3-1 loss at Inter last year. Now, we have a middle ground. I’d make Barca the favorite because every single home result they have had under Guardiola in Champions League knock-out ties would be sufficient to allow them to progress. Also, it’s unlikely that Messi will finish as poorly as he did tonight (although the rest of his game was outstanding). That said, at 0-1 and even 1-1, the tie was pretty much over. At 2-1 Arsenal, Barca’s chances aren’t much above 50%. The big question is whether Arsenal’s backline can handle the pressure that they’ll see for 90 minutes. What worked for Inter last year was a great center back pairing and terrific defensive midfielders in front of them. Arsenal doesn’t have that personnel, so they have to be thinking about 2-2 instead of 0-0.