As I took my seat on the tube I was feeling hot and sick with nervous excitement. I’d been pottering around the office thinking of little else all day, and now the time had come. This was it. I was making my way to the ground for what could be the defining match of our season. Possibly even the defining match of this team. Deep in thought, I came to the realisation that I was hot because I was wearing every single piece of lucky clothing that I own, and then suddenly out of nowhere a booming voice shouts…
“MESSI IS GONNA RAPE YOU.”
Hang on. Did I hear that correctly?
It comes again…
“MESSI IS GONNA RAPE YOU.”
I look up to find a fat bloke dressed as a zombie pointing straight at me and laughing. Oh the irony. What was I supposed to glean from that exactly? Did this articulate stunner wish to convey that Messi was going to annihilate Arsenal with his incomparable skill? Or did he actually mean that I should be wary of the small Argentinian on the poorly lit walk home? Seeing as not one person in the carriage appeared to be a football fan I maintained a dignified silence whilst looking purposefully shocked and allowed everyone to think that this bloke was some kind of predatory psychopath who should probably be detained in a high security correctional facility. Small pleasures.
When I entered the ground and tentatively walked down the steps to my seat, the tension was palpable. Flags waved, the crowd roared and I knew I had to be ready for this. I wanted to win this one. I wanted to win this one SO badly, largely because the events of May 2006 still hurt me. That was supposed to be our year. The year when we pulled the switch and went from under performing in Europe while achieving domestically, to almost losing out on fourth place while reaching the Champions League final. The stage was set. It was our last year at Highbury, Le Stade de France could have become a second home, and of course the trophy at stake was the one that had always eluded us. You know full well what happened, and to finally get some small smidgen of revenge on this particular night would’ve been as satisfying as a sly off-the-ball kick in the bollocks after a potentially crippling two-footer.
Earlier on the radio I heard various imbeciles banging on about how we had “nothing to lose”. A somewhat unbelievable claim considering that Barca had demolished their closest rivals Real Madrid to the tune of five goals earlier in the season. If we were to be humiliated on our own ground it could have easily proven to be a devastating blow to our confidence in all competitions, as significant losses have spawned similar adverse knock-on effects so many times before. I honestly didn’t think that we’d get spanked, but at the same time all I dared wish for was that we’d actually look like the home side this time.
And so there I stood with Doug on one side and my dad on the other, waving my flag and screaming myself hoarse like the hormonal, emotional wreck that I was. Cue inspirational Requiem for a Dream montage sequence. Tears. Cue the players coming out onto the pitch. Tears. If you think this is a rare occurrence then I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s the music that gets me, and the often understated but overwhelming feeling of pride that consumes every fibre of my being when the players representing our club walk fearlessly into battle with the cannon emblazoned on their chests. Yeah, you’re right. I really need to get a grip on myself. Sometimes the cancer ads on telly set me off too.
I was thrilled that we managed to hold the ball as much as we did in the first half because Barca were undeniably fantastic. If you lose the ball against them it’s entirely possible that you won’t see it again for twenty odd minutes, but this time we were much better when we weren’t in possession. We kept our shape and our concentration and were therefore able to exert far more pressure. We did however allow Alves far too much room down the lefthand side, and played the risky strategy of a high defensive line which was breached twice. Once by Messi who was forced to pull wide when Szczesny spread himself, and again later on when Messi put Villa clean through to score. 0-1. Shit. At half time we were worse off than in the previous meeting when we’d hardly touched the ball. I didn’t cry though.
The second half looked as if it would continue in much the same vein. We’d had chances but couldn’t capitalise, and Guardiola got comfortable. The decision to sit on a one goal lead was clearly wrong, and as Villa was replaced by the more defensive Keita, Arsène made the brave and contrasting choice of replacing the booked Song with Arshavin. As Nasri moved into the centre of the pitch, more chances came and not long after the introduction of Bendtner for Walcott, Clichy’s perfectly chipped ball allowed van Persie to smash home a goal that one needs a protractor in order to understand. 1-1. Euphoria. You could argue that Valdes was at fault, but he was obviously accommodating for the absent pass to “super” Nick which I’m sure he’s confident he would have scored.
Then after just five minutes, it happened. Suddenly Nasri’s lightning break down the righthand side affords him enough time to choose between Bendtner and Arshavin. The rumble of the seats grows louder as the crowd stand in anticipation. The pounding in my chest is almost audible. He chooses. He cuts the ball back to Arshavin for a sublime instantaneous curl round the ‘keeper. A work of pure genius. 2-1. Outpourings of indescribable joy. An eruption of emotions. More tears. Doug embraces me like the daughter he never had and despite some heart-stopping moments towards the end, we actually manage to see the game out to the bitterness of many and the pleasure of relatively few.
Special mentions must go to Wilshere, Koscielny and Eboue. Wilshere because he showed a maturity, vision and composure well beyond his years. Koscielny because he single-handedly rescued us in some awful situations, and Eboue because he managed not to do anything outrageously awful. Messi DID NOT rape us. I was ecstatic. This was probably one of the best nights of my life and I felt so honoured and privileged to have seen those events unfold in front my eyes with that particular bunch of people. Having said this, beating Barca does have its down sides. It can make you hope for a split second that Cesc might actually stay. It can also make you feel that the cannon tattoo you’ve been considering for your right buttock is a good idea.
The main point is that we did it. We beat Barcelona for the first time – the best team of a generation, probably more. What makes it even sweeter is the fact that they were brilliant and we still won. There is nothing left to prove. Regardless of what happens in the second leg and in the future, we will always have this. All the haters can tell me about Messi’s disallowed goal, Xavi’s 104 completed passes, and the possession figures as much as they like because we played them at their own game and won. It is so often our frustration that pleasing stats don’t always win matches, but Fat Sam and friends are right. It’s the goals that count. History remembers results, not the contentious decisions and not the pretty passing. This time, the result is ours.