Having come through their Champions League qualifying group in the most complicated, difficult way possible, Arsenal’s reward was to draw tournament favourites Barcelona in the round of 16. It was a group they were always unlikely to win anyway, with Bayern Munich obviously the strongest side in it, so how they got to this point was irrelevant.
Nor do Arsenal fans need any reminding that drawing one of the so-called easy sides is any guarantee of European progression. Last season Monaco looked like a great chance for Arsene Wenger’s men to go further than the round of 16 for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when they made the quarterfinals.
It didn’t pan out as planned, resulting in an exit at a familiar stage, and when you look at what lies in front of them this season, it’s hard to see them making much progress. Barcelona are the best team in Europe and in Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi, they have the most ludicrously talented and potent strike force in living memory.
Messi and Arsenal have some history. Witness his four-goal haul at the Camp Nou in 2010 when he reacted to Nicklas Bendtner putting the visitors ahead in the 18th minute. Messi single-handedly dismantled the Arsenal defence; it was as if he took umbrage to the opening goal, punishing the cheek of it all with a master class of a performance.
In 2011, after Arsenal had won the first leg 2-1 with an Andrei Arshavin goal that resulted in the bizarre, but rather endearing, sight of the Russian lifting his jersey to display a T-shirt with a picture of himself on it, Messi scored twice at home in the second leg to help Barcelona through 3-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.
History will only show they qualified, but it was a lucky night for that season’s eventual winners. After Robin van Persie had been harshly sent off for a second yellow card picked up on 56 minutes when referee Massimo Busacca thought the Dutchman had kicked the ball away in dissent, there was a chance late in the game for Bendtner to make himself an Arsenal hero. Clean through on goal, in the final few minutes, his first touch from a Jack Wilshere pass was poor and allowed Barcelona to clear.
Had Bendtner finished, Arsenal would have gone through on away goals and this was an Arsenal squad that contained players like Johan Djourou, Mikel Silvestre, Sebastian Squillaci, Denilson and Marouane Chamakh.
That match proved football isn’t predictable. It’s hard not to think that moment would have completely altered Bendtner’s career trajectory too. Maybe he could have built on being the man who knocked out Barcelona rather than the one who clumsily missed that chance. Maybe that would have sparked life into an Arsenal side that has suffered repeatedly from confidence issues.
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