James Lawton: Van Persie row at Nou Camp highlights footballing crisis
Arsenal were whipped more or less from start to finish, and they were made to feel what they are, a poor second to Barcelona in the higher reaches of football.
Yet who can not give them a touch of finer feeling after another refereeing decision to make all of your senses of what is right and wrong stand on end?
Robin van Persie's dismissal for time wasting – when he merely completed a shot for which he had set himself in the most clamorous circumstances – confounds all sense of fair play.
Yet Arsenal have to accept that they were never really a factor in this game and when this became most apparent the shattering fact was that it was Cesc Fabregas, of all people, who had cracked.
The mistake could hardly have been worse in its meaning – or the identity of the culprit. For Fabregas this was the ultimate stage of his life – and maybe the one of his future – but when he back-passed into another swarming Barcelona pack the folly could not have been more desperately compounded by the presence, in the middle of it, of Andres Iniesta.
Arsenal had been out-passed and outrun all the way to the final moments of the first half but they had at least fulfilled the first vital stage of the operation. Their goal and their aggregate lead was in tact and however brilliantly Barcelona play the game, however remorseless the pressure they apply, Arsenal know well from their last two games against them at the Emirates that they are not always the best of finishers.
So Arsene Wenger was preparing to weigh in gold the value of a deadlock at the interval – and the possibility that he might just talk his team into a touch of authority on the ball, perhaps even a hint or two of rudimentary swagger. It was something to hang on to as the Arsenal manager must have forlornly contemplated the fact that his team had been unable to seriously disrupt the one-way Barca traffic.
That it should be Fabregas who left open the Arsenal gate was as shattering as the fact that he had shown clear signs of being less than fully fit for his challenge to influence the biggest challenge of his club's season. Iniesta, of course, seized the ball hungrily and played in Messi, who required only the kind of skills which in him we have come to see as merely routine to score an astonishing 44th goal of the season.
It meant that Arsenal were down on every count: possession, almost grotesquely for a team who pride themselves on the quality of their football, aggressive instinct and any sense that they had the self-belief to impose any more than the ghost of their own game.
How do you come back from that? An own goal helps. When Sergio Busquets headed past Victor Valdes, after Samir Nasri had finally produced some genuine momentum to win a corner, it was as though Arsenal had been raised from the dead. But then if God gives, he also takes away, especially when his refereeing representative is as ready to follow the letter of the law as religiously as referee Massimo Busacca.
The dismissal of van Persie makes you wonder how many games will be undermined, if not ruined, before the authorities accept that they have a huge crisis at the heart of their game. It is one of eroding faith in the ability of officials to do their demanding job when they are left entirely to their own devices of perception and judgement.
Arsenal, it was clear enough, would have remained under the heaviest pressure with or without their Dutchman, such was the continued wit and pressure exerted by Barcelona. But to lose him like that, when he was completing a move played out to the background thunder of the Nou Camp, when his second yellow card came in the wake of wasted time amounting to barely more a second, was more than shocking.
It was another investigation of how futility can be imposed on the most significant of football matches. Arsenal no doubt made some of their own problems and also failed their most crucial challenge of producing some of the best of their game. But no team on earth – or player – deserved such punishment for quite so faint a brush with the technicalities of the law.
When substitute Nicklas Bendtner failed to take a late but clear chance we were taken back to the vagaries of football. Some of them are a glory of the game; some of them make you sick and disbelieving. That surely had to be the reaction when Barcelona, of course a truly brilliant team, swept home against 10 beaten men.
Arsenal had been out-played, beyond question, but why was there such a sour feeling in the Nou Camp? It was because something had gone badly wrong, yet again, in the control of a huge football match.