Return to London: Remembering the Night Barcelona Stormed the Emirates

Early in his book “Pep Confidential,” Marti Perarnau tells of an innocuous debate Pep Guardiola had with his assistant Manuel Estiarte. It takes place in 2013 just after a cruel July training session during the Catalan’s first preseason in charge at Bayern Munich. The two are discussing Pep’s golden days as Barcelona manager, attempting to pinpoint the absolute pinnacle of that trophy-bestrewed era that many football enthusiasts believe to be the greatest ever (it was objectively the most prolific; Barca nabbed 14 of 19 possible titles from 2008–2012). Pep insists that the 2011 Club World Cup triumph over Santos was the team’s “all-time peak.” Estiarte instead hones in on two particular games, or rather halves: the first-half of the 2012 Champions League semi final (presumably the second-leg, though he doesn’t specify) against Chelsea and the first-half of the 2010 Champions League quarter final first-leg against Arsenal. “We never played better than those two days,” Estiarte says.

I was struck by this conversation when I first read it, not just because these two very personal friends of one another — both of whom were directly linked to what was, in my football-watching history and opinion, the Best Soccer Ever — were discussing something I’d always wondered of their thoughts on. But also because I, like Estiarte, always point towards that first-half against Arsenal as the most exhilarating chunk of football I’ve ever witnessed.

By the time the Blaugrana first stepped foot into the Emirates on March 31st, 2010, the book on Guardiola’s team could have already been written. The historic 08/09 treble had just occurred the season before. And as dominant as they were, nobody knew if this was a side built for repeated success or merely a star wishing to burn out. We knew nothing of the 11/12 triumphs, nor Pep’s escape to Bavaria, nor “MSN.” We were essentially, as football fans, ripe for the taking. Arsenal were, too.

Less than 40 seconds into the match, before the Sky Sports producers could even get the game clock displayed on the screen, a lively Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already won a corner after backing down Gunners defender William Gallas from the right flank.

“Are we gonna get the show we’re hoping for?” commentator Jon Champion questioned. To which color voice Jim Beglin replied, “If it carries on like this, we certainly will.” And it did. And we did.

Following Ibra’s attack came 45 minutes of extremely prejudicial — and Catalan — salvo. Off the subsequent corner, before one minute had even run off, Sergi Busquets troubled Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia with a low, hard shot. Within ten minutes, the netminder had been called upon multiple times, Barca’s onslaught snowballing with every tiki-taka touch.

Then came the 14th minute, when faces started to melt. Let me take you there:

This blitzkrieg begins with an Alves ground cross that finds Xavi at the top of the penalty area, who deftly touches the ball around Abou Diaby before laying it off to Ibrahimovic, whose hit towards the far post is rebuffed by Almunia’s left hand. The ball then deflects out to the left flank where Seydou Keita loses possession to Andrei Arshavin, who unsuccessfully attempts to dribble out of danger before Barca’s suffocating press does what it does. Xavi finds the ball at his feet again, as he does, before playing it back out wide to Maxwell. The left-back strikes a low cross that somehow journeys through a mosh pit of players to the back post to find, yes, XAVI, who has torn all the way from the other side of the pitch and is now one-on-one with Almunia. Xavi unleashes his right foot from close range only to be denied by the sprawling keeper. From Almunia’s save, the ball trickles out to Alves, who lets his left foot fly from about 25 yards out. The shot ricochets first off Xavi’s (this fucking guy) foot, then Alex Song’s head. From Song’s head, the ball loops out to Messi, who cleanly volleys on-target. Song clears it again, this time with his right foot. The ball arrives back at Alves where it all started, he gives it back to Messi for another turn. Arsenal are rescued only when Thomas Vermaelen falls to the ground with a possible head injury causing the referee to halt play. All of this takes place in the span of approximately 34 seconds. Okay, back to the real world.

The barrage didn’t end there. Pedro had an on-target shot cleared away by Bacary Sagna in the 17th. Gerard Pique headed an Alves cross straight into Almunia’s mitts a minute later. Messi and Zlatan linked-up nicely in the 33rd to create a shot for the Swede that veered wide. From a scurried Arsenal perspective, every Barca venture forward was cause for alarm. Still, their defense refused to break in the opening 45. As official Massimo Busacca blew for half-time, Champion reflected quizzically, “…score at the Emirates, unbelievably: Arsenal, nil. Barcelona…nil?!?”

Almunia’s saves were Herculean in both effort and impact. Although they seemed at the time to be futile flashes of competence in a game obviously headed towards a five-or-six goal drubbing, that wasn’t the case. In the 23rd minute, Arsenal finally got a sniff at goal, as Samir Nasri’s curling effort just evaded Victor Valdes’s left goal post, perhaps foreshadowing what lay ahead.

The second half doesn’t figure much into this discussion (Arsenal diehards would obviously take issue with this statement). Although Ibrahimovic opened the scoring just one minute after the interval, by that time, the carriage was a pumpkin again; the combat, mortal. Zlatan scored another, before a resilient Arsenal team, buoyed by a raucous home crowd and a Carles Puyol red card, eventually pulled level. 2–2 going to Camp Nou for the second-leg wasn’t the end of anything for the Gunners. Having escaped with their limbs intact was blessing enough. Four goals from Messi on the return-leg would ultimately render the result meaningless, but to many, the memory of the first-leg remains indestructible.

***

Interestingly enough, this specific incarnation of Barcelona — the one that Estiarte claims was never better — was also missing some of Pep’s Barca’s historically key components. There was no Andres Iniesta, no Eric Abidal, and it was both post-Eto’o and pre-Villa. Even original mainstay Thierry Henry, on his return to North London, only featured as a second-half substitute. Instead, the Blaugrana went Voltron with Seydou Keita, Maxwell, and, Guardiola’s biggest ever transfer failure, Ibrahimovic. While the cynic might look at these variants as knocks against Iniesta and the likes for being conspicuously absent during these ultra-high moments; the truist knows that this particular Barca was fundamentally just like any other Barca of these last eight years: a familiar compound that could combust at any moment. This is, of course, because the process has become so entrenched in the ego of the squad. It’s why moderate talents like Keita, Maxwell, and Adriano have managed to carve out trenches amongst the gods. They bought into the movement, the belief that Barcelona’s philosophy is proficient enough to continually win out. In many ways, it’s the same old weary tale of idealism that soccer writers have been weaving for years. But in other ways, it’s the goddamned truth about the state of this club’s football. Part of me wishes it wasn’t true, therefore I could stop writing about it, too. The other part of me — the part with eyes and a brain and a pleasure center — prays that it never ends.

But even with Barca’s continued prosperity, it’s not often that they give us metaphysical mosaics like they did against Arsenal. By that, I mean the kind of everpresent occurrences that hold meaning free from outside variables or narratives. The fact that it was a Champions League tie, or that Barcelona were defending their title, or that Iniesta wasn’t suited up; none of that mattered as Almunia’s goalmouth was being shelled. Even the goals, or lack thereof, didn’t matter. It was the freest kind of sports-watching experience, really. In the way that dancing or storytelling is pure art, that first-half at the Emirates was all feeling.

If there’s been another instance where Barca transmuted into fairy dust since that Wednesday night in North London, it may have happened less than ten days ago, in fact, when Barcelona — comprised of four of the starting eleven from 2010 — stuck it to Celta Vigo at Camp Nou. This time, goals were scored. First, Messi scored one of the greatest free kicks of his career. Then he and Luis Suarez channeled Johan Cruyff and Jesper Olsen, to the chagrin of the Gatekeepers of Sportsmanship everywhere. Then Rakitic got involved. Then Neymar. Although Celta performed well on the night, the match will only be remembered for the twenty or so minutes of enchantment from the 75th to the 90th (plus injury-time). Our collective memory might not be fair to Celta, and we might not recall who exactly scored which goals, or how the Liga table looked before and after, but we’ll recall the way we felt in those moments when Barca found the glow.

***

On Tuesday, Barcelona will again visit the Emirates on a chilly European weeknight. To be sure, today’s Arsenal team is very different than before. Two of the players are still there (Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky; the latter an unused sub first time around), but unlike six years ago when United and Chelsea were trading off Premier League trophies year-to-year, this 2016 edition of the Gunners could be the best team in England — even if that isn’t the plaudit it was in 2010. Whether or not Arsenal’s recent charge means another barnburner is more or less plausible is partially down to Arsene Wenger, who’s always can-can’d on the fence between aesthetic and excellence, though maybe not as sagely as Guardiola or Luis Enrique.

But beyond Wenger’s plan, the game’s artistic ceiling largely depends on which Barcelona team shows up. Will we get the assassins who slayed Celta? Or will we get the stuttering savants who snuck past Sporting Gijon and Las Palmas this past week? This is both how and why we watch football. You never know when those transcendent days will happen. Arsenal could fold in the end amidst a plague of locusts like Celta. Or they could rise up like the 2010 version of themselves. And you won’t know which of those instances will be more compelling than the other until you’ve seen them play out. We do know that nobody soars on a football pitch quite like those beauts in blaugrana. Regardless of what happens, the Gunners can rest assured that Barcelona will be there trying to make them into a conclusive example, so that random scenes in future memoirs will tell of them.