Remember when Arsenal were good? No, didn’t think so.
Joking aside, 2011 brings bittersweet memories for Gunners fans and, rose-tinted spectacles or not, most of them would snap your hand off if offered to go back to those times. Yes, even with Marouane Chamakh on the books and Jens Lehmann back in the squad.
Having completed an iconic 2-1 comeback win against Barcelona in front of a raucous Emirates Stadium, Arsenal felt invincible once again. A Jack Wilshere masterclass and a winning goal from Andrey Arshavin (who the streets will never forget) saw them take one step towards the Champions League quarter final, having schooled the competition favourites in a mighty and characterful display in north London.
With the second leg date set for 8 March 2011, Arsenal had a few weeks in between where they had the chance to win some silverware in preparation for the big trip to Barcelona, facing Birmingham in the League Cup final on 27 February.
Arsenal took the lead through Robin van Persie, but a last minute winner halted the Gunners in their pursuit of the trophy, because that’s what Arsenal do best. Not to panic, though, because the trip to Spain was waiting and all would be forgotten when the Gunners ran wild on Camp Nou, even if there were doubts over Van Persie’s fitness.
Barcelona were out for revenge having had a win in London stolen from under their eyes. They won all four games they played in between the two legs, and arrived at Camp Nou in March ready to throw everything they had at Arsenal.
It was going well for the Gunners after kick off, until Wojciech Szczesny was injured after saving a free kick from Dani Alves – one that was so hard it dislocated his finger and forced Arsenal into a substitution. Manuel Almunia came on and did well, but that was a sign that it would be a tough night at the office.
Arsenal’s defence had managed to limit the numbers of chances afforded to Lionel Messi in the first half, but he found a way through in injury time to give La Blaugrana the lead, majestically dinking the ball over Almunia before tapping home to level the aggregate score line.
Arsene Wenger’s side came out with intent after the break, and a bullet header from Sergio Busquets of all people saw the ball rifle into the back of his own net and restore Arsenal’s lead.
Then disaster struck.
Three minutes later, Van Persie was adjudged to be offside when he latched onto Cesc Fabregas’ through ball and fired just wide. For continuing to play on and taking the shot after the referee had blown his whistle, the Dutchman received a second yellow card and was sent off in bizarre fashion, leaving Arsenal down to 10 men and without their talisman. His face said it all – he was bewildered as to why he was being dismissed.
A furious Van Persie appealed to referee Massimo Busacca, explaining that he didn’t hear the whistle amid the cheers and jeers of a full Camp Nou as he burst through on goal. The ref was having none of it, though, and Arsenal capitulated while Barça seized the opportunity.
Andres Iniesta turned up the heat in the middle of the park, slaloming past a number of players to assist Xavi and level the aggregate score at 3-3 after 69 minutes. Messi gave his side the lead two minutes later from 12 yards after Laurent Koscielny tripped Pedro inside the box, and that was it.
The Gunners turned to a substitute Nicklas Bendtner, who couldn’t find a heroic winning goal for his side- obviously – and Barcelona strolled into the quarter finals winning 3-1 on the night.
Speaking after the final whistle, Van Persie hailed the decision as a ‘total joke’ and lambasted the referee for being poor and against Arsenal all night, having ‘killed the game’ with his performance.
The defeat was a kick in the teeth for Arsenal, who had gone from being favourites to win the League Cup and knock out Barcelona in the Champions League to a side left bereft by two damaging defeats.
To make matters worse, the injury to Szczesny resulted in 41-year-old Jens Lehmann being dragged out of retirement as Almunia was the only fit keeper at the club – what a way to end a whirlwind few weeks, eh?
It’s difficult to say with any certainty- particularly with a team consisting of Chamakh, Bendtner and the aforementioned German pensioner – whether Arsenal would have become European champions had they beaten Barça. But one thing is for sure – Van Persie’s dismissal cost them dearly on the night, and instead of Arsene Wenger lifting the Champions League high above his head, it was Pep Guardiola.