Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yellow and red overlapping footballs - Ebren

There's something insidious about corporate boxes and sponsor tickets.

At one level, you know that the cash companies provide means more money for the clubs and - in theory - cheaper tickets for the fans. But it's not right. The FA Cup final filled with officials not fans. And a European Cup quarter final at the Emirates with a man from Little-Rock Arkansas sitting to my left, because he works for MasterCard.

I shouldn't really have been their either, to be fair, nor should the people to my right or the left of the MasterCard man. But put yourself in my place, would you say no to a free seat in the Emirates for Arsenal-Barcelona? Thought not.

But there were complications: explaining who was who was harsh: "That's Messi - he's probably the best player in the last 20 years; that's Alves - a pantomime villain but one of the most influential figures in the Barcelona team; Ibrahimovic - he's a lazy Swede; Xavi -won't misplace a pass; Fabregas - captain, watch the softness of his touch; oh, and that's Bendtner - he's not very good at football."

At so it began, Arsenal barely holding on, Almunia saving shots like a demon, Alves being booed and involved in almost every Barcelona move, Bendtner mis-conrolling like a pub player (to be fair there were one or two nice touches and he wasn't served well by Arsenal deciding now was the time to try hoofing it long to a big man with no support), yellow shirts swarming all over Arsenal then playing some of the best possession football I've seen.

But there was someone I'd forgotten to highlight in my one line player descriptions. Samir Nasri.

When Nasiri arrived in London in 2008 he was the latest in the line of "new Zidanes" (a title currently held by Gourcuff) and a YouTube search of his Marseille displays ahead of his arrival showed touch, pace and finishing - a real player then. But the boy who ran out in the iconic red-and-white shirt wasn't a new Zidane. He was peripheral, lightweight, behind the pace - and looked like he was more likely to turn into a new Hleb than a new Pires or Zizou.

But that wasn't the game he played last night. He was Arsenal's most (only?) effective outfield player, matching Alves for distance covered, tacking deep, and playing like an Arsenal player should - touch, speed, awareness, movement, intent.

It's no coincidence he was involved in Arsenal's best move of the first half, from the only period in the opening hour when they played like Arsenal should at home. (Okay, there was one nice move down the right and cross from Bendtner, but that was just to annoy me, I think).

As the game reached its pulsating conclusion, Walcott's pace and positioning stretching and worrying Barcelona in the way Alves did to Arsenal in the first half, the crowd roaring it's encouragement and swearing at the referee (and Alves) and Fabregas scoring the equaliser then waving away a stretcher and limping on to the end with a broken leg, my American host was cheering as loudly as anyone.

I might not agree with sponsors getting tickets to key games as point of principal, but by god I was glad to be there in the stands and watch Nasri emerge from the shadows to outshine Messi and Henri while Walcott and Almunia took on the best team in the world and proved their equals.

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