Dyspeptic Pep, Arshavin's missing gloves & toys without batteries

 Has anyone seen Arshavin’s gloves?

What I want to know is what did Andrei Arshavin do with his gloves? Arsenal’s diminutive No.23 hails from St Petersburg, where winter temperatures of –20ºC are not uncommon, but on a moderately chilly February night in north London he ran onto the pitch sporting dainty black gloves.

Fifteen minutes later, when his superb finish completed a remarkable counterattack and an even more remarkable resurrection, he was mysteriously barehanded. As I left the East Stand, an Arsenal supporter vehemently declared: “I knew Arshavin would come good in the end.”

If that particular Gooner appeared on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be being wise after the event.

Psychic Philippe

The euphoria was understandable: nobody expected this. Actually, that’s not quite true. Philippe Auclair, who covers English clubs for L’Equipe, had a tenner on Arsenal to win 2-1 at odds of 14/1. At half-time, the odds on a 2-1 home win had soared to 125/1 but his faith was vindicated. Psychic Philippe’s one regret? Not putting a fiver on Robin van Persie to score Arsenal’s first goal.

Van Persie’s strike is a perfect illustration that in football – as William Goldman once said of Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything”.

As Nicklas Bendtner came on for Theo Walcott, I lamented the fact that Arsene Wenger hadn’t brought van Persie off. Sixty seconds later, the yellow-booted genius had found the net with a superb strike that bisected the wide open space Victor Valdes had helpfully left between himself and the near post.

I felt partially vindicated by Valdes’s error. His kicking had been so erratic since the first minute I assumed that, if he was as out of sorts as his distribution suggested, it was only a matter of time before he dropped a clanger.

Yet when David Villa gave Barcelona what hack match reporters call a “richly deserved lead”, Valdes’s form seemed irrelevant. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona spent most of the first half torturing Arsenal with possession.

In Row 28, the effect of all these pretty little triangles was almost hypnotic, trance inducing. Only one man in the stadium didn’t seem mesmerised with delight: Pep Guardiola.

Dyspeptic Pep

He cut an increasingly grumpy figure on the touchline, possibly because he could see that, while Barcelona ran through their training ground routines, they often had two on one and a prairie’s worth of space on the other flank.

Some coaches tell their team to break games into ten-minute blocks. The ebb and flow of any match is such that even Barcelona will, at times, allow opponents into the game. And Guardiola looked fretful as his side failed to capitalise on their utter dominance.

They created chances and were unlucky with some decisions, but they only managed five attempts on target (compared to Arsenal’s seven), a poor return for 61% of possession and 629 passes.

Perhaps there are some realities in football that even a team as immense as Barcelona cannot ignore. For the last few seasons, Andy Roxburgh, UEFA’s technical director, has emphasised the importance of counter-attacking in the UEFA Champions League. And the key characteristic of any counter — the former Scotland manager insists — is speed.

Many of Barcelona’s counters were so slow and methodical that even a relatively static Arsenal had thoroughly regrouped. For a while at the start of the second half, Barcelona did switch the play with a few crossfield balls – maybe Guardiola had had a word. But the principle that the last thing you learn is the first thing you forget kicked in and they reverted to more intricate play. As the Spanish daily El Pais put it, Barcelona became “more administrative and less ambitious”.

Arsenal’s second goal vindicated Roxburgh: a first time side-foot pass from the ever impressive Jack Wilshere, a touch and a beautifully weighted pass by Cesc Fabregas to Samir Nasri, a cut inside and a lovely rolled pass across the area and Arshavin made a tricky chance look like a tap-in.

The Spanish press felt the substitutions turned the match. Wenger gambled and was rewarded. Guardiola tried to hold on to what he had and lost it. Actually, Arshavin for Alexandre Song wasn’t a massive gamble. Song had committed six fouls, had been booked and was drifting into some very odd positions in his quest to change the game.

Arsenal looked more settled with Arshavin out wide and Wilshere and Fabregas organising midfield. Seydou Keita is hardly your clichéd holding midfielder but his arrival – in place of Villa – took much of the sting out of Barcelona’s attack. Bojan for Villa might have worked better.

Even so, Barca almost snatched a late equaliser as Arsenal’s defence nearly imploded. When the final whistle blew, the Gooners rose in triumph but you could hear the relief in their joy.

The only disappointment in this enthralling match was seeing Sergio Busquets, fairly early on, urging the referee to show Song a second yellow card. Still, I was impressed by Guardiola’s dignified response to the result: “It’s a pity we lost but these things happen in football.”

Away daze

Guardiola also alluded to an issue that must trouble him. If Barcelona are the best team in the world, they should convince on the road. Since 2009/10, their record away from home in the Champions League stands at Played 10, Won 2, Drawn 6, Lost 2.

Although the British press focused on Messi’s failure to score in his seventh game with Barca on English soil, the fault is not his alone. Since 2009/10, Barca have averaged 1.2 goals a game away from home in this competition – and 2.55 goals a game at Camp Nou.

Wenger can take heart from this game. Arsenal’s resilient spirit, Nasri’s return (he looked off the pace initially but grew to influence the match), Laurent Koscielny (who would earn even more plaudits if he’d learned the first rule of televised football: never look gormless when you’ve made a mistake – if in doubt, point), Wilshire’s eerie maturity and Arshavin’s renaissance are all positives.

Guardiola may console himself with the thought that his side were below par but, if they’d had a penalty and not had a goal wrongly disallowed, would probably have won.

Guardiola’s luck didn’t placate the Spanish media. In El Mundo, Julian Ruiz said Messi had “lost the thread of his dynamite”, accused Andres Iniesta of “sleep-walking” and labelled Barcelona a “club in crisis”.  This seems outlandish but Ruiz’s remark that Barca played like a “toy without batteries” is not entirely absurd.

Without Carles Puyol, they seemed to lack a leader on the pitch. Maybe that’s another reality even Barcelona can’t ignore: great teams need the spirit to match their technique.

So what’s next? One thing is all but certain: Barcelona will score in the Camp Nou. They have now done so in their last 11 knockout matches in this competition. The more intriguing question is: will Arsenal score too? They will now believe they can.

The odds still favour Barcelona but Guardiola may yet rue losing a game his side could, at one stage, have won 3-0.