I thought to myself there was no way on earth I would stay indoors and watch last night’s mouth-watering fixtures. Knowing the whole streets of Lagos would be lit as is always the case on every Champions League night, I also knew last night’s games had an extra tonic to it.
I wanted to give myself a head start, so I left home 8pm plus a five minute walk to one of the area’s popular viewing center made of just out of planks and aluminium roofing. My early home departure was informed by the need to get enough time to make myself comfortable before the crowd trooped in en-mass.
However, few yards to the front of the viewing centre’s gate, I realised I was among the crowd trooping in as all the seats were taken by 8:05pm when kick off was scheduled for 8:45pm. Sitting is far from a luxury; the over 50 benches are made of wood and that isn’t even the worst part – the fear of crashing to the floor due to the weight of people which usually exceeds the strength of those benches is always the worst part. I accepted this was going to be a 90 minutes of standing but rather than displeasure, I was pleased to be here – the bants and singing can never be found anywhere else than Lagos.
The game kicked off as both Arsenal and Barcelona sized each other up in a frantic opening minutes and behind them, the two sets of fans who were miles away from the Emirates Stadium threw bants at each other, clapping and screaming at every move.
“Up Gunners”, the Arsenal fans screamed. Arsenal had just knocked the ball around for barely a minute but that knocked every sense of pride out of them, they were proud and almost astonished that their team could spring five or more passes against Barcelona. Another fan screamed “this is not La Ligor”, a condescending way of talking about La Liga by most Premier League fans in Lagos who usually view the Spanish league as soft and easy unlike the Premier League.
Barcelona settled into the game, passing their way around and commanding the pitch like the Emirates was just named their second training ground apart from the Santiago Bernabeu. However, their fans didn’t show any level of excitement as the Arsenal fans showed when their team sprung passes that lasted no more than a minute. Barcelona fans have seen this from their team all too often, they weren’t surprised and they expected it.
Arsenal wearing their home colours of red and white sat deep and tried to break on the counter which is mostly the tactics by most La Liga teams as well. A Barca fan screamed “ere le fe sa” a western Nigeria dialect which translates to in this context “you want to play on a counter”.
Luis Enrique probably expected such an approach from Wenger and he knew how to crack such tactics very well but for Barcelona fans it was starting to look like just another La Liga fixture against one of those mid table teams or lower. Arsenal with their jersey started to look much like Granada or at best Athletic Bilbao who also play in red and white.
Arsenal’s approach may not have been similar to that of Athletic Bilbao’s whenever they play at home at the San Mames – where they mostly press high up the pitch rather than sit deep but it was similar to the approach both Athletic Bilbao and many other La Liga team adopt when they travel to the Camp Nou. However, the shocking thing was this wasn’t Camp Nou and more importantly, if Arsenal were going to ever have a chance in this two legged tie, they needed a win at the Emirates.
The narrative from both the English press and also their fans about the La Liga is that Barcelona and Real Madrid find it way too easy in the league due to the low quality of the other sides in the league rather than the might of both teams. English football lovers suggest that both Real Madrid and especially Barcelona get an easy ride in Spain and they envision that both teams would struggle or find it more difficult if they played in the Premier League.
But how logical is that argument when a team with the kind of firepower and strength in the Premier League as Arsenal, bent over so easily for Barcelona at their home ground like few La Liga teams would. Barcelona’s last opponent in the league was Las Palmas, an 18th placed team in La Liga and they offered way more threat than Arsenal. They created more than double the number of chances Arsenal created and also enjoyed a better share of possession against Barcelona. Atimes, it looked like Arsenal were defensively solid but other times it seemed like Barcelona were doing way too much with the ball in the final third in an attempt to score the perfect goal.
The game really didn’t look like an European classic. Rather, it had a feel of just another La Liga football to it; where Barcelona dominates as they had almost double of everything on the stat board against Arsenal. Barcelona had more than double of both passes/passes completed (291 to 648), corner kicks (1 to 7), and total attempts (7 to 16).
Arsenal had few chances of their own but failed to take their chances which is usually the case with most La Liga teams also. Arsenal’s performance looked no superior to the kind of problems Barcelona are offered every week in La Liga. If anything, they offered very little to what Barcelona suffers in Spain. This was an Arsenal team that was well rested for this encounter after Wenger decided to rest key players against Hull City in the FA Cup but on the other hand, only three players didn’t take part in Barcelona’s victory at Las Palmas last weekend.
Arsenal did not do anything better than those “low quality” teams of Spain which most Premier League fans seem to opine. Rather, Arsenal’s display validates those who say that the top sides in the Premier League wouldn’t be different from Malaga and Villareal in Spain.
Follow Joseph Bassey on Twitter – @akajoebass