Perception and reality: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

The vast majority of football supporters and the sporting media are human beings. This difficult fact means that the gap between perception of events and the reality of them is often very wide indeed. Take Wednesday’s Champions League tie between Arsenal and Barcelona as an example. Arsenal have had acres of column inches written about them in praise for their victory over the Catalan giants – a team who are considered to be the greatest in the world – if not the greatest of all time.

Yet, how fair, how measured and how accurate is that praise?

I’ve read some tweets and a couple of articles making the “Elephant in the Room” point that the tie is effectively only at the half-way stage and that the first tie will count for nought if Arsenal are ultimately eliminated from the competition after being beaten at the Nou Camp.

Despite these warnings it hasn’t stopped praise being heaped upon Jack Wilshere (quite rightly) and Arsene Wenger, many labelling this game as Wenger’s best ever in charge of Arsenal. But surely this result has to be seen in the context of the 180 minute tie? No one ever gives Carlo Ancelotti any credit for guiding his Milan side to a 3-0 half time lead in the Champions League Final of 2005 do they? Had the Champions League final been played over two legs of 45 minutes I’m sure Ancelotti’s Milan would have had a week or so between the legs of being lauded as one of the best European finalists of all time. As it was they collapsed in the second-half and eventually lost on a penalty shoot-out. They were only praised for quarter of an hour at half-time by gormless pundits (and a decent proportion of that fifteen minutes of half-time was filled with adverts!)

Professional footballers’ training regimes are designed to enable a player to play at the highest level possible for a full ninety minutes. Anyone who has seen a group of highly paid footballers flounder around a pitch during extra-time (especially at World Cups) will know that players struggle when this extra physical question is asked of them. Similarly it appears that journalists and fans struggle when they are asked to consider a tie that lasts longer than 90 minutes. Arsenal leading Barcelona 2-1 at half-time is obviously a great achievement, however it has to be viewed in the context of a two-legged tie in order to make any sense. Had the game at the Emirates Stadium been a league match it’s likely that Barcelona would have thrown more bodies forward in order to secure an equalising goal. I remember Barry Town beating Porto 3-1 in European competition, on the face of it a great result, but it’s not until you see that Barry lost 8-0 in the first leg that you realise that their win was ultimately fruitless.

Despite the diatribe above, I (almost paradoxically) think Arsenal deserve a lot of credit for the result last Wednesday. If in the world of 180-minute games the first-half performance is given far too much focus, in the 90-minute game the first-half is often forgotten entirely. Consider a fan’s view of their team if their side had come back from a goal down at half-time to win 2-1 over a fan who has seen their team win 2-1 with a great first-half performance (leading 2-0 at the break) only to concede in the second-half. It’s the former who is happier with their side, waxing lyrical about the character of their side for coming back from a goal down to reign victorious, whilst the second fan is left feeling worried about his side’s ability to hold onto leads in future matches. You only have to look at how Arsenal’s 4-4 draw with Newcastle was covered by the media and commented on by fans to see that. Arsenal, slated for throwing away a 4-0 lead and Newcastle United praised for their team spirit in coming back from such a perilous situation. Surely giving Arsenal credit for storming into a four-nil lead by half-time and criticising a moribund Newcastle first-half defensive performance is a valid way of looking at it?

The proximity of events is obviously important to football supporters and the media, things that happened recently are given the most consideration and the most coverage. It’s probably the reason why this blogpost isn’t about Gennaro Gattuso’s magnificent head-butt on Joe Jordan.

The second-legs of these games are likely to be covered a little differently to the first. Arsenal could well come away with a disappointing 1-0 loss, or a magnificent 3-2 defeat. As always, it’s perception that decides whether a result should be lauded and not always the reality.

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