Sport

Barcelona pay homage to Cruyff by teaching Arsenal harsh WCL lesson

Barcelona ripped Arsenal apart in style to kickstart their Champions League defence. Goals from Mariona Caldentey, Alexia Putellas – the newly crowned European player of the year, who received her trophy before kick-off – Asisat Oshoala and Lieke Martens earned the home team a comfortable win, with Frida Maanum scoring a consolation goal from a corner. The scoreline, terrifyingly, flattered the Gunners, who had six shots while their opponents had 35. Arsenal barely registered time on the ball.

“I’ve learned that we have a team that never gives up,” said the deflated Arsenal manager, Jonas Eidevall. “It was a really, really tough game. I can probably do things better in preparing the team to find those solutions even quicker than they did today.”

In the first half Arsenal were forced to ride wave after fluid wave of Barcelona attack and it was surprising they clung on for half an hour. Within minutes of the whistle the reigning European champions fizzed around the Arsenal box, pinning back the Women’s Super League leaders with the shadow of the famous La Masia academy looming over the stadium.

On approach to the Johan Cruyff Stadium, the 6,000-seat ground opened in 2019, a quote by the Dutch master adorns a wall: “In my teams, the goalkeeper is the first striker and the striker the first defender.” This Barcelona team were doing their best to make those words come true. Sandra Paños spent much of the first 45 minutes closer to the halfway line than her goalline as the strikers drove forward, forcing save after save from Manuela Zinsberger and denying the Gunners any time on the ball.

Given her heroics, which included a late penalty save from Putellas, it was cruel then that Zinsberger would be let down by her defence for the opening goal. Having firmly parried Oshoala’s effort from the edge of the area it was Caldentey who pounced on the rebound and fired in without a yellow Arsenal shirt in sight.

Barcelona doubled their advantage two minutes before half-time. Oshoala, who spent a season with the Gunners in 2016-17, was played in behind the Arsenal defence on the right. The Nigerian forward cut back to Putellas who smashed in from six yards between Leah Williamson and Zinsberger.

Prior to this match Eidevall had brushed aside warnings of the strength of a Barça side that had scored 35 goals in their first five Superliga games and conceded just once, when he said: “It’s a very good football team, but they are also beatable. It’s 11 humans against 11 humans. In Sweden, we say ‘a shovel is a shovel’. A football game is a football game.”

The problem, though, was that Barcelona looked superhuman, a shovel digging a hole that the Gunners were desperately trying to fill back in with bare hands.

If Arsenal hoped for respite in the second half it did not come. Barcelona, who dismantled Chelsea 4-0 in last season’s Champions League final, had come back out with a digger. Within two minutes they had their third goal and it was disappointingly easy from an Arsenal point of view as Oshoala latched on to a low ball in behind, easily outpacing Jen Beattie, before calmly slotting past Zinsberger.

The Gunners were chasing thin air, throwing bodies behind every attack leaving Barcelona shirts free to claim each clearance and go again. Eidevall took off his tired forwards. On came Tobin Heath, a two-time World Cup winner with the USA, England forward Nikita Parris and Australia’s Caitlin Foord.

Parris and Heath, in particular, inserted much-needed energy into a nonexistent attack and Heath’s free-kick was bundled over the line by Maanum to reduce the deficit. Martens would re-establish it shortly after though, racing clear and chipping Zinsberger not long after entering the fray.

“What makes them a really good team is that they can do basically three different things,” said Eidevall. “They have really, really good players on the wings that can do one-v-ones, like Caroline Graham Hansen, and really good players in the midfield that can make central breakthroughs, like Alexia Putellas, and really fast players like Oshoala who can hit you with runs in behind. Usually you play teams that maybe can’t hurt you in that many ways.”

There is no shame in being beaten by the best. Both sides have new managers but with Jonatan Giráldez Costas stepping up from assistant coach, after Lluís Cortés left in the summer, change at Barcelona has been minimal and they are much further along in their current team cycle than Eidevall’s Arsenal.

If anything Arsenal can be grateful that the new format in the Champions League allows them to test themselves against Europe’s top team in a group stage where progression to the quarter finals is still possible with a second-place finish.

What is scary is that Barcelona areonly going to get better. “There is a long season ahead of us. The aim of the team is to get all the titles, win what we did last year, the intention is to repeat it,” said Caldentey.