Tag Archives: Emirates Stadium

How football is getting greener

Apart from the characteristically pristine pitches, there isn’t much to associate the Premier League with being green.

With giant stadiums hosting hundreds of thousands of people each month, football clubs have a tough task to combine satisfying fans with managing their impact on the planet.

But from banishing plastic drinking straws, to sourcing local beer, small changes to the way we enjoy the beautiful game are having huge positive implications for the local and global environment.

Take the floodlights at Wembley Stadium. To power them for one match, it uses the same amount of electricity as watching the game on 20,936 household televisions.

LED floodlights at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium

The FA, permanent owners of Wembley, is currently looking to join Arsenal, Chelsea and rugby union outfit Harlequins in switching its floodlights from halogen to LED.

It’s a “brilliant” move according to the Gunners’ deputy stadium manager at the Emirates, Michael Lloyd.

“You get about a 30 per cent energy reduction,” Lloyd tells me proudly as we survey the giant bulbs from the equally dazzling directors’ box.

“They’re a lot colder, bluer light than the traditional floodlights, so they don’t have that flickering you used to get with super slo-mo on tele. And you can do really cool light shows, which look brilliant.”

Vegan burgers

Perhaps clubs the size of Arsenal (whose stadium is 100% powered by renewable energy) are more reliant on their good publicity coming from what happens on the pitch.

But Forest Green Rovers has become well known for its environmentalism and is a good example of how activities off the pitch can generate more attention than performances on it would normally allow.

“When we broke into League Two, as much of the PR was around the fact that we were green as it was about the promotion,” says Rovers’ CEO Helen Taylor. “We’re doing what we can to prove you can be green and actually enjoy that within the fun environment of football.”

Forest Green Rovers are planning a new wooden-built carbon-neutral stadium

Last year the club announced plans to build a new green technology business park, including a world first, a wooden, low-carbon impact stadium.

Architectural firm Zaha Hadid was commissioned to draw up plans for the £100 million site, with permission expected to be granted by the local council in the coming months.

After winning promotion to the English Football League (EFL) for the first time last year, the Gloucester-based club, owned by green energy company Ecotricity, has struggled with the step-up in quality, facing a real threat of being the first team in history to be relegated from the EFL the season after entering it.

So is EFL survival a prerequisite for the new stadium development? “Not at all,” Taylor tells me earnestly. “We started the plans for it back in the National League. Obviously it would attract more fans, certainly away fans (if we’re in the EFL).

“It goes hand in hand with our vision to get into the Championship, and to be greenest football club there will have even more resonance than it has in this particular league.”

The club garnered national and international attention (and plaudits) when they took red meat off the menu a few years ago. They have since become the only football club to provide exclusively vegan food on-site, with no exceptions for players, visitors and fans.

“The away fans will come and take the mickey out of what we’re doing,” Taylor explains. “They’ll chant ‘where’s your burger van?’ and stuff like that, but it’s all in good jest, to be honest.”

The club has also pioneered the use of a robotic lawn-mower, known to fans as ‘mow-bot’. Powered by electricity (as opposed to petrol) it uses GPS to navigate the pitch and sends the groundsman a text if something is wrong.

Keeping quiet

2016 was the best year yet for football clubs improving their environmental outlook. Manchester City and Arsenal both announced partnerships with renewable energy suppliers, offering fans that switch to these greener suppliers  rewards, from club-branded household appliances to signed merchandise and VIP stadium tours.

Man City’s device allows consumers to store renewable energy at home

If you haven’t been aware of your team giving due diligence to environmental concerns, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not something they like to shout about.

This may seem strange in an industry where good publicity is valued almost as much as keeping clean sheets.

“We don’t actually talk an awful lot about what we do in terms of the environment,” Lloyd says frankly in Arsenal’s plush Emirates offices.

“That’s a conscious decision because we use so much energy and we fly to quite a lot of places, so we don’t want to open ourselves up to criticism.”

There was the story of the north Londoners famously flying to an away game at Norwich in 2015 which received huge criticism from fans and environmentalists.

“It was outrageous, there’s no getting away from it,” Lloyd concedes, “but there were genuine operational reasons why they did it and that is the case with all these things.”

“The Daily Mail for example would love it if we said ‘look at our floodlights they save x amount’ because they’d say ‘well you make so many million pounds from this and that’, so we’ve been really reserved in telling anybody what we do.”

Gunners’ food for homeless

Such is the hunger for negative headlines, it’s not uncommon for clubs to keep quiet about a range of charitable donations, in Arsenal’s case giving left-over food to those living on the breadline.

“Normally it’s raw foods like sacks of potatoes, punnets of fruit and milk,” explains Lloyd. “We work with a food charity called Plan Zheros. They’ll come in the day after a match day and they’ll collect it to distribute. It goes to homeless shelters and families in sheltered accommodation.

“I think we’ve done around about 2,000 meals in a year so its not massive quantities, but it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?”

Lloyd, who’s worked for the club for 16 years and oversaw the move from Highbury, registers the surprise on my face at this significant statistic. I had never heard of this hugely commendable local charity drive, despite living locally myself.

“Some people would say that’s excellent, we should all be doing that. Others will say ‘well why have you got so much waste, what’s happening with all the rest of it?’ Well, we don’t really need to be having that argument, we’re doing the absolute best we can under the conditions we can work in.”

Good business sense

Back in north London, I get a look at the stadium’s very own Waste Management Centre, located in the underground car park. It feels a long way from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

The site the Emirates Stadium is built on, known as Ashburton Grove, used to be home to a recycling centre that dealt with all of Islington’s waste. Part of the deal when Arsenal moved here from Highbury across the road was the club had to build a new waste facility in the borough to replace the one they knocked down.

Moro de Mineira favela in Brazil where the pitch is lit by the players’ kinetic energy

It’s not just altruism that has made football greener and Lloyd is pragmatic about the issues at play.

“This isn’t just about saving the world,” he tells me. “This is about operational efficiency. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a good business case for being sustainable.

“That’s the way you sell it to senior management. You can talk about saving the planet as much as you like, but in the cold world of business it’s how much money you save and doing things properly and sustainably actually saves money.”

Clubs’ carbon footprints vary depending on their size and the amount of spectators they attract. Regardless of size, we should commend the efforts being made to minimise the impact sport has on the environment, and not just at elite levels.

One quirky example can be found in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Pavegen, a UK-based company has constructed a 3G football pitch with a difference.

Under the surface are 200 special tiles that when stepped on by players, create kinetic energy to power the six surrounding LED floodlights.

At £600 per square metre, the tiles are expensive, but that money can be clawed back in a matter of years depending on usage. The technology has since been rolled out at Heathrow Airport and Harrods department store.

The universal popularity of football means it’s always going to impact on the natural environment. It is how we manage that impact that is important if we are to sustain our game for future generations.

The power of sport is often used to the betterment of the people who adore it, so it can also be used to the benefit of our planet, too.

United take the spoils in a classic encounter

So much for parking the bus…

Aware that they could not afford to slip further behind their local rivals in the race for the title, Manchester United tore up the script and tore into Arsenal at the Emirates.

They were two goals up in 11 minutes against the shell-shocked Gunners, who pulled a goal back just after the break before a third for United made it 3-1.

Jose Mourinho is renowned for his spoiling tactics away from home against other teams towards the top of the table, but that approach was ditched in favour of one more in keeping with United’s rich attacking traditions.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be fuming that his side were caught napping by those two early goals, but in truth this was a deserved victory for his old rival.

The Frenchman and the Portuguese have been the best of enemies since the latter’s first stint at Chelsea, and they exchanged fiery words and a shove or two on the touchline a few seasons ago.

Buzzing

United celebrate Lingard’s second

Arsenal went in to the game in good form and full of confidence but were ambushed by Mourinho’s ambition to hit them hard straight from the off.

Within the first four minutes, Antonio Valencia took advantage of some slack Arsenal defending to put the visitors ahead.

With the Gunners still regrouping after that setback, Jesse Lingard made the most of Anthony Martial’s pass and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Petr Cech on 11 minutes to put United 2-0 up. Mourinho’s side were buzzing and bossed the first half of the game.

Whatever Wenger said to his troops at half-time clearly had an impact, and Alexandre Lacazette found the net in the 49th minute to give the disgruntled home fans hope of a comeback.

Nullifying the threat of Lacazette had probably not figured in United’s game plan. A few days earlier, Wenger had ruled him out of contention because of a groin injury, but the French striker was in the starting XI. Mourinho wasn’t alone in catching a whiff of something fishy…

Arsenal now had their tails up as that pre-match confidence flooded back, and United had David De Gea to thank for some outstanding saves in the second half. The Spanish stopper was rightly lauded as man of the match after keeping the Gunners at bay.

Sure enough, as the hosts pushed for the equaliser, they left the door open for United, and Lingard duly stepped through it to score his second.

On 64 minutes, a simple, rapid counter-attack instigated by Paul Pogba ended with Lingard side-footing home to give Arsenal a mountain to climb.

Lunge

The score remained 3-1 at the end of a breathtaking encounter, giving Mourinho a first win in his past 12 away fixtures against the Premier League’s ‘big six’.

However, it wasn’t all good news for United as they headed back north, with Pogba suspended for the vital Manchester derby clash on December 10th.

The midfielder was given a straight red in the 74th minute for a reckless lunge that saw his studs planted firmly into Hector Bellerin’s calf.

Mourinho, who is known for causing a scene when he disagrees with the referee’s judgement, perhaps surprisingly stayed in his seat rather than berate the fourth official.

Neither did Pogba’s team-mates seem to take issue with the sending off, and the general consensus among the travelling support was Pogba only had himself to blame.

Derby decider?

But United will go into the derby at Old Trafford buoyed this result and their performance at the Emirates.

Can they still catch City? Pep Guardiola’s team are widely viewed as champions elect this season, but it would be unwise to rule United out of the running just yet.

City also began last season at a blistering pace before slowing down after the hectic Christmas period.

Plus, United now seem better equipped to mount a serious title challenge. Apart from the occasion blip, their struggles of the previous campaign, as characterised by too many draws and uninspiring, narrow wins, seem to be behind them.

United are clearly getting more out of Pobga, now that the £85m midfielder has been given more freedom to roam forward, thanks to the summer signing of Nemanja Matic.

Lingard is now staking a strong claim to be a regular starter, with young talents such as Martial and Marcus Rashford improving all the time, and the likes of Phil Jones and Ashley Young realising their potential.

United can definitely challenge City this season if their current form continues, but the result of this weekend’s derby could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.

Review: The Emirates Stadium self-guided audio tour

On average, most football stadia will only welcome match day customers once a week. The rest of the time, they stand empty and under-used. 

But for those that are home to successful clubs – particularly ones with an internationally-recognised brand – stadium tours have become a lucrative money-spinner.

It helps if, like Arsenal FC, you have an iconic 60,000-seat state-of-the-art venue to show off, as well as a long history of winning trophies and fielding legendary players.

Likewise, it helps that the London club are well placed to take advantage of the thousands of football tourists who flock to the city from overseas.

But do you have to be an Gunners fan to really get the most out of a visit to the Emirates Stadium? Not necessarily, but – again – it probably helps…

Souvenirs

There are several tour options at the Emirates, including VIP packages where your host will be a former Arsenal star and perks such as lunch, drinks and a goody bag are included. Yours for just £350…

‘Everyone sat quietly, listening to their audio player and drinking in the atmosphere of the famous stadium’

The cheapest option to check out what is currently England’s third-largest football ground after Wembley Stadium and Old Trafford is a self-guided audio tour.

Offered in nine languages, these are priced from £14 for under-16s, with students and OAPs charged £17 and standard adult entry for £20. Family tickets are £55.

You don’t have to book your ticket in advance; you can pay on the spot and enter the tour any time between 9am and 6pm.

Naturally, you enter through the Arsenal merchandise shop so you can size up any souvenirs you might wish to buy as a memento of your trip, from towels to mugs.

Atmosphere

The home dressing room at the Emirates Stadium
The home dressing room at the Emirates Stadium

Once you buy your ticket, your are given a pair of Arsenal headphones and a small audio player, which explains each part of the tour as you follow the route.

The first floor features statues of Arsenal legends – this is probably the part where being a die-hard Gooner is an advantage.
Pride of place goes to a huge figure of the club’s longest-serving and current manager Arsene Wenger.

Moving on, the second floor was my favourite as it gives you access to the directors box, looking down on the pristine playing surface.

You can be there for as long as you like, and everyone sat quietly, listening to their audio player and drinking in the atmosphere of the famous stadium.

You can imagine how exciting and noisy it must be on match day.

Spacious

After that, the tour takes you into the inner sanctum of any stadium – the players’ changing rooms.

I had always wondered what it would be like to stand in one at a famous club, and can assure they are definitely an upgrade on the ones we used before PE at my old school!

The home side’s facilities feature a huge jacuzzi, as well as a massive shower room and beds for physio and massages. Once you pass those, you enter the actual changing room itself, where the players shirts hang.

Visitors also get to walk up the tunnel and out into the stadium itself at pitch level. As a football fan, it’s an amazing experience you will never forget – even without those 60,000 spectators.

As a budding sports journalist, I was also fascinated to see the press conference room and the area where managers and players get interviewed after matches.

Good memories

The tour ended in a room full of replicas of the trophies won by Arsenal down the years, although the FA Cup (pictured right) – which they won last season – was possibly the real thing?

It’s a room of good memories for any visiting Gunners fan, although it will also remind them that their team haven’t won the Premier League title since 2003-04, when the ‘Invicibles’ went  unbeaten throughout their league campaign.

Despite their troubles in recent seasons, Arsenal are a top club with an amazing history, and the self-guided audio tour of the Emirates is well worth doing.

You can do it whenever you want (match days excluded) and take your own time – there’s no pressure to keep up with a group of people, and you are allowed to linger.

The staff were friendly, welcoming and helpful, and the Emirates is just a 10-minute walk from Highbury & Islington underground station.

But back to that question: do you need to be an Arsenal supporter to really enjoy the tour? Well, I’m a Manchester United fan, but I’m very happy I did it.

For more details on tours of the Emirates Stadium, visit the Arsenal website.

 

Five famous footballing returns

Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.

Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?

For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.

Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?

Here are five of those who did it best:

5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea

Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.

Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London. 17 Sep 2000: Graeme Le Saux of Chelsea in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge in London. Leicester City won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Dave Cannon /Allsport

In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.

The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.

In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.

4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal

When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.

So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again. Henry celebrates after scoring the winner on his return to Arsenal.

By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.

But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.

He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.

His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?

3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool

Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football. Ian rush celebrates scoring at Wembley for Liverpool.

Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.

Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.

A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.

A legend? Unquestionably.

2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.

His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.

Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.

His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.Drogba celebrates scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final.

When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.

Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.

Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.

The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.

Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.

After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.

The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.

1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United

An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.

In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.

Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around. Scholes makes his second debut for United in a Manchester derby.

He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…

His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.

The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.

Iacono flies high to win Red Bull Street Style final

For many people, football’s international break is a chance to catch up on missed shows such as The Walking Dead or Eastenders. For others like myself it was a chance to delve into a new sport. 

After coming across Sky Sports’ promotion of the Red Bull Street Style world final on their website, I was filled with curiosity.

With the winter months in full flow, most people would be against the idea of going out on a chilly, blustery evening, but I was willing to broaden my horizons and watch a new sport.

Tickets cost £10 – peanuts in an age when prices to see elite sportspeople in action tend to be excessive and immoderate.

A tenner to witness some breathtaking displays of showboating in a world final was without doubt value for money.

The event took place at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, and I was filled with excitement and eagerness to see a different style of football.

History 

The Red Bull Street Style is freestyle football’s premier tournament, where the world’s top tricksters go head-to-head against one another in a bid to impress the judges with their extravagant abilities.

The competition burst onto the scene in Brazil in 2008 and has also taken place in South Africa, Italy and Japan.

The 2014 event, back in Brazil, saw the most fluent freestylers from 44 nations battling it out for the biggest prize within their sport.

Britain’s Andrew Henderson, who has performed at Old Trafford and put Barcelona’s Neymar to the test in a freestyle battle, captured his first title with some dazzling showboating.

The rules are pretty straightforward. Three minutes, two players, one ball and one victor.

Atmosphere 

As I warmed up with burger and chips, excitement rippled through the Roundhouse crowd as it was announced that former Manchester United and England defender turned TV pundit Gary Neville was on the judging panel.

Gary Neville watching some skills on show

He was joined by Sean Garnier, the winner of the very first Red Bull Street Style in 2008.

Since then, the French star has been influencing and tracking the pulse of the sport and his name needed no introduction to the fans of freestyling.

The cheers were deafening for both Garnier and Sky Sports pundit Neville and the volume only kept increasing.

The atmosphere around the place was louder than most match days at the Emirates Stadium, with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ whenever someone did something amazing with the ball, plus moans and groans when competitors failed to get out of their comfort zone.

It was a superb showcase of jaw-dropping tricks and seemingly impossible transitions that left everyone astounded.

Talent on show 

With the biggest names in freestyle looking to stamp their authority on proceedings, the level of competition was so high that no-one was safe from elimination.

Portugal’s Ricardinho, one of the favourites to win, went out in the quarter-finals.

Another casualty was Ireland’s Daniel Dennehy, who oozed class and ability but was defeated by Carlos Alberto Iacono, the man from Argentina who was hoping it would be third time lucky in 2016.

After coming up just short in the last two tournaments, the man nicknamed ‘Charly’ was determined to claim the crown in London.

Donchet double

Ahead of the men’s final, the world’s best female freestylers got their chance to show off their talents.

The final between Melody Donchet of France and Poland’s Aguska Mnich was a truly gripping encounter.

In the semi-finals, Donchet had seemingly given her all to defeat long-time rival and double world champion Kitti Szasz of Hungary.

But there was more to come from her. In a fearless performance, the French star defeated Mnich with seamless transitions from standing to sit-down tricks and back up again.

Donchet’s ability to persevere when most fans felt she had nothing left in her bag of tricks was simply remarkable.

She secured her second consecutive title and, in the process, elevated her reputation to a new high.

Iacono on top 

In the men’s final, Iacono managed to get the monkey off his back by defeating Japan’s Kosuke Takahashi.

The Argentinian’s ability to ignore the noise from the crowd was one of the main reasons to why he delivered on the big stage.

Iacono celebrates his final win

At times it seemed like Iacono did have wings as he delivered the technical moves for which he is best known.

He sealed victory with one of the hardest handstand tricks ever seen, as he juggled the ball flawlessly on his calf.

Russian’s Anatoliy Yanchev earned third with a respectable performance, however Iacono’s feat earned him a rousing reception from the arena and his piece of history showed that you should never give up under any circumstances

As he admitted afterwards: “After losing several times, I was discouraged. But my heart told me you have to try again.”

And boy, did he deliver.

For more information about the competition, visit the Red Bull website.

Messi, Suarez, Neymar – oh my…

Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes and thinking ‘not again’ when the Champions League last-16 draw was made.

Their team’s reward for beating Olimpiacos 3-0 in Athens to secure a place in the knockout stages was yet another tie against Barcelona.

With one win in eight Champions League encounters since 1999, and Barca’s formidable front three in fine form this season, the omens were not good.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had scored 91 goals between them this season ahead of this week’s first-leg clash at the Emirates Stadium, leaving the red-and-white half of north London fearing the worst.

And yet, Arsenal could take encouragement from the fact they’d had the patience and killer instinct to beat Bayern Munich 2-0 at home in the group stage, when Robert Lewandowski was Europe’s hottest striker.

Enticing

However, this time out, the Gunners’ defence was facing arguably the current three best players in the world. For 70 tense minutes, the Catalan magicians were frustrated and contained, but they still ran out 2-0 winners.

“Not a single errant touch ever allows the ball to go astray for someone to nick it off their foot”

Messi plays as if he knows at some point he will find a way through. It’s like watching the best kid in the playground; he plays without a care in the world, he knows he will get the better of you eventually because he is that good.

The Argentine entices his pursuers to get close to his body, skin tight, before a exchanging quickfire passes with his closest team mate and suddenly he is the other side of his opponent in a blink of an eye.

At times. you don’t see the ball, the movement is so quick. Sometimes you’re left wondering has he even seen it himself?

The trouble for any team facing the European champions is that no matter how hard or difficult a pass that they receive, every player kills the ball. Not a single errant touch ever allows it to go astray for someone to nick it off their foot.

Life-saver

Arsenal managed to keep Suarez quiet for most of their defeat to Barcelona, although even on a quiet night he still managed to thunder a shot against the base of the post and glance a header just wide. Barca’s threat mostly came from Messi and Neymar.

Neymar had his work cut out against former La Masia graduate Hector Bellerin. But when he did trick his way around the right back, the Emirates crowd held its breath as Neymar cut in from the left hand side with just Petr Cech to beat.

“The three strikers came out and warmed up together by themselves, a close-knit bond that only helps them create moments of pure genius”

But the Arsenal keeper’s outstretched leg blocked the shot – another life-saver from the former Chelsea man.

Per Mertesacker was supposed to be ‘exposed’ at the back, but although his lack of pace at times hinders Arsenal’s defence, his reading of the game is hugely important and he was forever intercepting passes and through-balls that would have cut Arsenal to shreds.

Laurent Koscienly seemed to be tasked with hassling Messi off the ball. At times he came off worse, but the odd challenge and tackle won was greeted with a huge encouraging roar from the supporters, especially if it sprung Arsenal into a counter attack.

Exposed

Hard work and patience were required by the hosts, and it seemed to be paying off until an attack broke down leaving their backline exposed. Memories of the counter-attacking goals scored by Monaco a year previous flooded back as the three amigos combined.

“In a dangerous area, Flamini’s decision-making is more often than not the stuff of nightmares”

Suarez fed Neymar who tore down the left with Bellerin trailing in his wake. He cut in again with Cech to beat but, perhaps mindful of his earlier miss,  squared to the amazingly unnoticed Messi who, with all the time in the world, beat Cech. The energy inside the ground was evaporated within seconds.

Arsenal had fallen victim an attacking front three that possess not only extraordinary talent but a real spirit of camaraderie.

The relationship between the trio is the nucleus of their formidable form on the pitch.

Pleasure

When the Barcelona team came out to warm up, the three strikers came out and warmed up together by themselves, a close-knit bond that only helps the players create moments of pure genius.

For the neutral, it’s a real pleasure to see this amount of talent on the pitch. For opposition supporters, all you can do is sit tight and hope for the best.

The second goal came from the spot after a stupid foul by Mathieu Flamini.

He regularly enjoys telling experienced defenders what to do or where to go, but when the time comes for him to do the right thing in a dangerous area, his decision-making is more often than not the stuff of nightmares.

Messi dispatched the penalty and left Arsenal with a mountain to climb for the sixth year on the trot in the last 16. Time to focus on the Premier League…

Image courtesy of Nacho from Flickr Creative Commons