Settling in at my desk at around ten minutes before 3 p.m. yesterday after a short meeting at the office, I quickly got online to find a live video stream for Arsenal’s “biggest match of the season,” the second leg of the Champions League semifinal at the Emirates, which had already begun five minutes earlier.
Anxiously awaiting the game for most of the day, I was expecting to be a bundle of nerves throughout the next two hours while hoping to see the Gunners overcome a 1-0 deficit to advance past Manchester United and into the Champions League final on May 27.
Yet only ten minutes into my viewing, this huge European tilt between the two footballing giants of England was basically decided, and the final 80 minutes of the encounter weren’t really even required. My hopes were devastatingly shot, the air was out of the stadium, and the Gunners’ last chance at a trophy this year was gone.
Goals from Park Ji-Sung after a Kieran Gibbs blunder and Cristiano Ronaldo (on a free kick from 40 yards out, believe it or not) gave the Red Devils a quick 2-0 lead and commanding 3-0 aggregate difference only 11 minutes into the match, and Gooners everywhere began lamenting another season without silverware for their team.
By the time the 90 minutes were through, Ronaldo had slotted home another goal after a fine counter attack. Robin van Persie then smashed home a penalty shot in minute 75 after Cesc Fabregas was taken down by Darren Fletcher (who was harshly given a red card and will thus miss the Final in Rome). Arsenal played the rest of the game a man up, but the fans — those who remained in the stands until the end, anyway — hardly noticed and the tie ended anticlimactically at 3-1 to United.
As manager Arsene Wenger noted afterwards, “the most disappointing thing tonight is that we don’t feel like we’ve played the semifinal of the Champions League because we were out of it after ten minutes. We were in a position where we had to take all the gambles after having started quite well. The most disappointing thing is that the game was over before it started, that is most difficult to swallow.”
Admitting that Manchester United were the better side over the two legs, the manager added that “it’s very, very disappointing to fight such a long way to get where we have been but to give the game away like we did tonight. I felt the fans were really up for a big night and to disappoint the people who stand behind the team so much tonight hurts really.”
Even with the unfortunate slip by Gibbs prior to the opening goal or Manuel Almunia’s failed attempt to save the Ronaldo free kick, Wenger stated that “we do not want to blame any player individually. It is like that and in two minutes we conceded two goals which was too much on a night like that against a team who defends well and comes out on the counter-attack.”
Much of the resulting discussion appearing on some online forums that I regularly frequent was angrily directed at Wenger’s lack of adding some experience and physicality to his Arsenal team this year. Many expressing comments believed that to be the reason for another trophy-less season, and wondered what types of changes in personnel would boost this club back to its high-flying status so evident earlier this decade.
Post-match questions for Wenger from reporters included that query on potential changes this off-season, but the Frenchman considered it “a difficult question to answer tonight because I am too disappointed. I need to take some distance with this season. We are on a consistent run of 21 games unbeaten but recently in the games that have mattered, like Chelsea and tonight, we couldn’t win. That of course needs thinking.”
“It’s easy to say that we need a bit of experience,” he continued, “but I am convinced that we have the quality and we’ll continue to develop. If you look at the average age of the team it is still very young. To reach that level deserves a lot of credit but tonight we were caught by a team who has the art to kill and take advantage of mistakes.”
Veteran defender Kolo Toure agreed that Manchester United “are a cut above the rest of the Premier League,” but told arsenal.com’s Chris Harris that his Gunners can soon close the gap on their European conquerors.
“I think they [Man United] are the best at the moment,” admitted Toure. “They have really experienced players, they are really strong physically, they are tactically fanstastic. I think they are good defensively as well.
But Toure also noted that “when you see the first five minutes of the game you could see it was not so far between the teams. We put pressure on them and we could have scored with Cesc’s deflected shot. That can make the difference – whether you have luck or not.
“We have been together for a long time but we have not won trophies yet. When you win trophies it becomes like a habit for you,” added the Ivory Coast defender. “At this time we did not win anything and at the moment we do not know what is happening. But I think when we get the first trophy you will see more from Arsenal.”
Unfortunately, that first piece of silverware since May of 2005 will not arrive during the 2008-09 season, and club supporters have to endure another summer of “what ifs,” all the while wondering when the potential of this young and talented team will be realized and result in more hardware for the Arsenal trophy case.