Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Arsenal left wondering what might have been

It could have been one of Arsenal's greatest triumphs. Instead in years to come, Gooners will reflect on this match with bitter feelings, cursing what might have been.

Had Robin van Persie stayed on the pitch we could have beaten Barcelona, they will say.

The truth is we will never know, but obviously playing with 11 men rather than 10 for the last 35 minutes in the Nou Camp would have given them a much better chance to record a famous victory over two fascinating legs of this compelling Champions League tie.

Should Van Persie have been sent off? No. He was stupid when shoving Dani Alves in the face and deserved a yellow card for that but to caution him, as referee Massimo Busacca did, when the Dutchman kicked the ball away after being flagged offside was extremely harsh.

One second. That's how long it was between the whistle and the striker, who made a miraculous recovery from injury to play, slamming the ball wide of the goal. He pleaded with the official that he didn't hear him blow. With 95,000 vociferous Barcelona fans screaming their lungs out, you could see his point.

It was 1-1, and 3-2 on aggregate to Arsenal, when Van Persie was dismissed, much to the disbelief of Arsene Wenger, who right now is more furious with referees than Sir Alex Ferguson!

The mystery over whether Van Persie's departure changed the outcome will never be solved.

But one thing that we can be certain about is that Barcelona were the better side, playing in that sensational style of theirs that bewitches and hypnotises spectators and the opposition.

Magnificent on the ball, they were hungry off it too, making sure Arsenal had minimum possession. By the end of the night the home side had completed 724 passes compared to 199 for the visitors — an extraordinary statistic especially when you consider Wenger's side are the pass masters in English football.

Normally Cesc Fabregas is at the heart of everything good about the Gunners.

Last night was his least effective game in an Arsenal shirt.

The only time you noticed he was playing was in first half injury time when he attempted a ridiculous back heel just outside his own box. Andres Iniesta read it, skipped away from Jack Wilshere and then delivered the most sublime pass into the path of Lionel Messi, who with a glorious piece of skill outfoxed Manuel Almunia before volleying into an empty net.

All of Arsenal's hard work, in particular from centre-backs Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny had been undone by a moment of madness from their captain, punished by two true magicians of the modern game.

On 53 minutes came an unexpected lifeline when Sergio Busquets headed the ball into his own net from Samir Nasri's corner. Arsenal were on their way. Two minutes later Van Persie was on his.

And from there, it was only a matter of time before brilliant Barcelona took advantage.

Inter Milan may have overcome Pep Guardiola's side having lost a man at the Nou Camp in the Champions League last year, but that was a Jose Mourinho team, experts in stifling the best.

This was Arsenal, brittle Arsenal. They had no chance.

More bewildering skill from Iniesta and a touch of class from David Villa, wasteful in front of goal all night, led to the excellent Xavi scoring before Messi slid home a penalty to make it 3-1 to Barca on the night and 4-3 overall.

The Catalan kings will believe they'll go on and win the Champions League now.

Arsenal, chasing four trophies a couple of weeks ago, now have only two to play for.

Don't be surprised if they end up with nowt.

Belfast Telegraph

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