Controversy clouds Barcelona's win
Arsenal blamed the referee for its loss to Barcelona in the Champions League
Arsenal forward Robin Van Persie claimed he was unfairly dismissed
Controversy overshadowed fact that Barca dominated game yet still almost lost
Arsene Wenger told Pep Guardiola to congratulate Massimo Busacca, but the Barcelona coach was more interested in congratulating his players. The Swiss referee might have been important during Barcelona's 3-1 victory against Arsenal in a Champions League match Tuesday at the Camp Nou. He might even have been decisive. But Guardiola preferred to believe it was his players who were the difference. The trouble is, on their own, they might not have been. With Busacca, they won the match, eliminated Arsenal and advanced to the quarterfinals; without him, we will never know if they would have done so. The doubts will not go away. Nor will the anger and the accusations.
The central question has become: Who had, ultimately, been more important?
Busacca is the figure at the heart of the fallout. And that is a tragedy. To reduce this match to the performance of the referee, to compress 180 minutes of the two legs into the single second between his whistle going and Robin Van Persie taking his shot, would be to reduce everything to rubble. But game after game, week after week, that is what happens. Sometimes justifiably, often not.
This time is no exception: Had Nicklas Bentdner taken advantage of a golden opportunity in the 87th minute, it would be irrelevant. Arsenal would be through and the moans would surely have come from the other side. Yet somehow that botched scoring chance has not formed an essential part of the narrative. Score, and no amount of perfect passing would have comforted Barcelona in its moment of defeat; miss, as he did, and Arsenal's search for a scapegoat from Switzerland is undermined. Best not to talk about it then. Better to find someone else to blame.
At the end, Arsenal was incensed and, in an odd sort of way, rather comforted -- confronting the referee meant not confronting its failure; it meant not confronting the truth. And the truth is that it had been comprehensively beaten. Barcelona arguably was assisted, yet it was also rather sad -- a brilliant performance was sullied, belittled. Anyone who doubted as much only had to listen to Javier Mascherano the following day.
The referee had robbed Barcelona of recognition.
The reaction was certainly understandable. Wenger called the decision to send off Van Persie in the 56th minute "impossible to understand." Van Persie described it as a "joke." Not that anyone was laughing. The response was bitter. "We have played against a great team," Van Persie said on Twitter, "and an even better ref." Jack Wilshere congratulated Barcelona and then, tongue wedged firmly in his cheek, added: "The ref was good, too."
Guardiola shrugged and said he "understood" Arsenal's complaints. Would Barcelona have won without the red card, he was asked. "I don't know, I don't know," he answered, quietly. A little sadly. Then, speaking in English, he said it: "But the reality is that we played awesome against 11 and awesome against 10. The reality is that they did not string three passes together." If that sounded like a criticism of Arsenal, it is because it was. It was also true. More to the point, it was high praise for his players.
Before the game, Mascherano insisted that Arsenal was "not stupid." However much the Gunners took a lofty position on footballing ideals, they had a lead to protect and, Mascherano said, protect it they would. Contrary to its discourse, Arsenal had parked the bus. Or had it? Juanma Lillo, the Almería coach whose side lost 8-0 to Barcelona, once insisted: "Against them, you don't do what you want; you do what you can." Was this one of those cases?
Guardiola thought so. "Arsenal's qualities are to control the ball, to keep it, to play," he said, "so that [Arsenal's not stringing three passes together] is very successful for us."
Arsenal is a good team. But it did not look like it. It had been completely dominated. Barcelona performed superbly, pressuring the Gunners high, winning the ball back quickly, making the ball its and its alone.
Arsenal had just one shot on goal -- the one that saw Van Persie sent off. The whistle had already gone so the shot was not counted.
Barcelona had 19. Barcelona had more shots on its own goal than Arsenal did. This was the first time since Opta has produced statistics on the Champions League -- almost a decade now -- that any team has finished the match without a single shot.
Barcelona completed 724 passes to Arsenal's 199. Xavi alone completed more passes than Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Bendtner, Andrei Arshavin and Van Persie combined. So did Andres Iniesta. Ineffective, cry those who dismiss the passes. Sideways, pointless, irrelevant, they add. But the passing is the identity that has taken Barcelona to extraordinary success over the last two and a half years. The passes are relevant; they are everything. Through them, Barcelona protected itself; it defended with the ball.
Barcelona attacked with it, too. Two of the three goals were wonderful. In the build-up to Xavi's goal, every player but Leo Messi was involved. After the third, which gave Barcelona the lead in the aggregate, it was a Barcelona player who raced to get the ball out the net and carry on the game. And in the final minute Dani Alves, theoretically a fullback, was dashing into the Arsenal penalty area. Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia was easily Arsenal's best player. When Arsenal equalized, it was barely believable. Has a team ever done less to score a goal?
"The sending off changed the game," Wenger said. Only it didn't. Not entirely. What it might have done is prevent Arsenal from being able to change the game; what it might have done is deny the Gunners the chance to change the game. What it might have done was open Arsenal up a little more, make resisting even harder and scoring a little easier. But Barcelona had already scored once, in the 45th minute. It had already had six shots on target, more than it would have afterward. It was already dominating the match. When the goal was scored, Arsenal was clinging on.
But Arsenal had been given the lifeline; Sergio Busquet's own goal in the 53rd minute had, incredibly, tied the game and put the Gunners in position to reach the quarterfinals.
And then it happened. Van Persie took a shot after the whistle. He said he had not heard the whistle. If not, then it was a dreadful shot and one taken with remarkable abandon, with a lack of concentration -- a loose, frustrated swing of the boot. The swing of a man who knows the whistle has gone. A reaction. A yellow card offense. His second.
It was still an awful red card. Not because the decision was wrong but because, strictly, it might even have been right. Although the referee should surely have applied some comprehension and common sense, he could underline the relevant paragraph in the rule book. And that's the point: that the rules punish something so innocuous, so unimportant as if it were a heinous crime. It is absurd that a player departs a game so big for something so little.
For Arsenal, it was an injustice, a death blow. As it was when Eric Abidal was not sent off for reaching for Van Persie's neck in the first half -- an act of folly that could have cost his side dearly.
It's also worth noting that Van Persie had earned his first yellow card by grabbing at Alves' face. He had also launched into an ugly tackle on Messi, studs going up the Argentine's Achilles. Barcelona supporters also noted that there was a clear penalty on Messi, ignored by Busacca. There was another penalty in the second half that wasn't given -- mainly because Pedro did not go down despite being fouled. Laurent Koscielny had, they said, been fortunate to stay on. In the first leg, Alex Song had walked a fine line. As for Messi, he had a goal wrongly ruled out at the Emirates. There had been a shout for a penalty there, too.
And yet for all that, for all the soccer, for all the great play, the dividing line remains extraordinarily fine. For all that, Van Persie's moment becomes the key moment -- to the fury of Arsenal and the frustration of Barcelona.
Barcelona was right when it said that it had been the better side, but, at that point of the match, Arsenal was going through. You can never be sure what would have happened next. Maybe Barcelona would have found its way through again; maybe it wouldn't. For all its football, it was, after all, on the edge of the precipice until the very, very end.
The point, said Wenger, was that once the card came out Arsenal never had the chance, even though in the dying minutes it did have the chance. The point, said his critics, was that the red card gave him something to hide behind. For Barcelona critics, it was exhibit D in the case of Barcelona Isn't That Good Really: Guardiola's team needed the referee again, just like it had against Chelsea.
If the controversial call really is the difference between going through or going out, Barcelona would surely rather have the help. But the accusation can sting. And when Barcelona thinks that it was the better side anyway, that type of call becomes a hindrance not a help. From Barca's perspective, this was another unjustified "yes, but" in the way of recognition. Barcelona has answered all of the charges leveled at it, it has won everything, but it can do nothing to destroy the one about the officials. And that clearly gets to Barcelona, too.
"Barcelona always wins because of the referee," said Mascherano, turning on the sarcasm to make his points. "It doesn't matter if we have 19 shots or all the possession, it doesn't matter if we are brilliant. It doesn't matter at all ... we win because of the referee."
And because of Nicklas Bendtner, of course. That was the moment that everything could have changed. But that's an inconvenient truth -- for both teams.