So, I had this great idea for a post about Arsenal and Barcelona fans, and how to distinguish them. An Arsenal fan will feel good about him or herself for entering a Starbucks and buying coffee imported from Nicaragua or some other third world country. A Barcelona fan? He or she will turn over the coffee package and scowl in disgust. No fair trade sticker of approval?!?! Thus, from soccer to coffee consumption, moral one-up-manship pervades the relationship, with Pep donning design cardigans handmade by monks in Tibet (and the profits support the cause) and Wenger unabashedly asking him the price tag.
But it dawned on me that, after taking a “personal day” at work, I had just seen a great soccer game. It also occurred to me that the “Barca-backlash” had reached its saturation point – cynical minds in North America have grown to detest Barca not for their style of play or debt-driven-spending, but because they inspired mainstream and popular interest in the sport. I can imagine these same counter-culture-elitist dumping soccer in a few years at the drop of a hat, turning to cricket, badminton, or hurling.
But not me. I saw a great game. And here’s why it was great.
First, certain truths about Barca became evident. David Villa was exposed for the fraud he really is. We all love the chin stubble and faux-hawk, but he truly has the easiest job in all of soccer. He basically gets paid to stand between two central defenders for 90 minutes and wait for a) Xavi’s inch perfect pass, or b) Messi to draw a triple team and then slot him an inch perfect pass. If Barca was a post office and Villa was a mail man, he would be paid to stand on the client’s front porch until his supervisor arrived with the mail, handed him the mail, and then rang the doorbell of the client’s house for him.
Still, he delivered a goal. And a crucial away goal. Even if he just lingers on doorsteps these days.
Second, Arsenal has officially transitioned from “transition team” to “teething Tiger.” Several years back, Manchester United lost 1-0 to AC Milan at home & away in the Champions League. The boo birds complained about the young Ronaldo and Rooney, but the canny eye saw a talented team ready to turn a corner. Last year, Barcelona bled Arsenal like a sheep. This year, Arsenal has shown its new-found claws.
Third, Barcelona depends on two things: sublime finishing from Messi & clockwork passing by Xavi. The universe does deserve criticism for fawning over Barcelona’s La Masia because Xavi is the key to Barca’s style, not some magical assembly line of instruction and talent-hoarding. In the few games where Barca has had to play sans Xavi, they look a normal side without him running every which way & completing more passes in a game than Ruud Van Nistelrooy completed in his entire career. Barca will never be the same sans Xavi. And neither will Spain.
Last night, Xavi completed a lot of passes. But Messi’s early & errant chip set the tone for the night: the mythical and magical mini-goal. For 90 minutes, the goal shrunk to a five foot by five foot box and Messi could only muster the precision to shake side-netting. Of course, Arsenal did limit his chances. Djorou provided the muscle and Koscielny the pace. If the two of them can just stay away from transmogrification machines & not turn into William Gallas, the Gunners have a chance. Albeit a slight one.
Finally, for all the love sprinkled on Jack Wilshere, Andrei Arshavin did score the game winning goal. Yes, he had a comical defensive header, but at least he was defending, no? Time has finally caught up with the Russian, as his explosive first step now packs the punch of a blackcat. His lungs of steel have gotten rust, but class is eternal – his touch & timing on the first time strike were effortlessly wondrous.
Or wondrously effortless.