Barcelona, Arsenal feed the soul

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By Martin Samuel

London – After a troubling week in Europe, it would be easy to mock Arsenal or Barcelona, were it not for one thing. Each time they play, these two clubs, arguably above all others, attempt the hardest feat in sport. They try to win beautifully. Not pragmatically. Not with cunning. There is a plan, but it is a noble one. To attempt victory with the game in its purest form. One of the clubs, clearly, has been a lot better at it lately.

The crisis at Arsenal and the blip at Barcelona barely compare in real terms: eight years without a trophy against a bad night in Milan. Barcelona are walking away with La Liga and Arsenal would kill to be in their shoes.

Unless Real Madrid win the Champions League this season – and chances are they won’t even make the quarter-finals, with Manchester United growing in strength – they will have seen off nemesis Jose Mourinho in almost contemptuous fashion.

Yet viewed dispassionately, even Barcelona’s near-decade of dominance contains elements of underachievement. The club have been on the way up since the beginning of 2004, when Edgar Davids arrived to supplement a changing squad including Ronaldinho and newly-promoted youngster Andres Iniesta, Barcelona beginning to reverse a mid-table position.

What coach Frank Rijkaard began, Pep Guardiola advanced in splendid style. Rijkaard won two La Liga titles and the Champions League, Guardiola won three titles and the Champions League twice, while his successor, Tito Vilanova, is sure to add his first Spanish title this season.

For the last five years at least, Barcelona have been acknowledged as the greatest club side in the world – some would argue the best there has been, comparable to the Real Madrid late-Fifties era of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano.

Yet while Real Madrid dominated the early years of the European Cup – a markedly weaker tournament back then, it must be said – Barcelona have spent many of their golden years being eliminated by inferiors. Inter Milan defeated them in 2010, Chelsea in 2012. And Barcelona’s triumph in 2009 would have been cut short by Chelsea in the semi-final, were it not for one of the most bizarre refereeing displays of recent times.

AC Milan, not even the best team in Italy according to the Serie A table, now stand a very reasonable chance of removing them again, taking a two-goal lead into the second leg. Strangely, as out-thought and sterile as Barcelona appeared in the San Siro, the failure almost made admiration grow. Milan were brilliant: but they were brilliant in the familiar way. Brilliantly disciplined, brilliantly organised, brilliantly coached to carry out a brilliant plan, brilliantly effective. They were not like Barcelona at their best. Their ambition was not of that scale.

Arsenal are a hard watch right now. They are not playing well and for all his protectiveness, Arsene Wenger surely knows this. His defence was a shambles against Bayern Munich and only Jack Wilshere could have held his own in the opposition team.

Wenger is presiding over decline, albeit on a limited budget for an elite Premier League club, and there is a real chance Arsenal may be squeezed out of qualification for next season’s Champions League.

At this point any ideas of bold investment become meaningless, as Radamel Falcao is not about to quit Atletico Madrid for a club that cannot offer the biggest prize of all. Yet, despite this, Wenger’s aims never alter. He might be delivering reduced fare compared to past glories, but there is no doubt he aspires to more. Still, Wenger’s motivation is to win playing the most ambitiously exhilarating brand of football on its day.

We are not far from Europe’s elite, he claimed at the weekend. Wenger knows that an Arsenal midfield driven by Wilshere and Santi Cazorla could be inspirational, with the right support network.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” he says, and of course we will. Those not paying Arsenal season ticket prices can afford to indulge Wenger’s theories on the off-chance they will click – because, when they do, the results are sublime. Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, it’s good knowing he’s out there.

Barcelona’s football feeds the soul, too. After defeat in Milan, the conclusion was that Vilanova’s team did not have a plan B. Why would they, when plan A is such a beauty?

Sulley Muntari boasted that Milan had worked out how to play them. Chelsea and Inter did, too. But beating them and playing better than them are two different things.

Barcelona and Wenger’s Arsenal attempt football’s high wire act: to perform perfectly, without compromise. And of course, it will not always work: but we’ll miss them when they are gone. – Daily Mail

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