Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Barcelona Trip

12 of us Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club members travelled to Barcelona on 16 March to watch Arsenal's second leg against Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16. Eight early risers flew to El Prat airport at the crack of dawn, while the remaining four took train from Alicante station. On the train, we found fellow Gooners on their way to Barcelona for the match that night. They were the 22 strong members of another official supporters club on the Costa Blanca based 100 km north of where we live. It was great to meet them finally face to face.

On the metro, on the streets and in cafes and bars, Arsenal shirts were everywhere in Barcelona. A "Super Sanchez" flag with an old Arsenal badge and a Chilean flag was on display outside a flat in Placa Catalunya. After shocked by the price of drinks on La Rambla (€11 a pint is not what we are used to in our neck of the woods), we found an Irish bar just off the famous busy street, where drinks were served at more reasonable prices. Arsenal fans started pouring into Flaherty's Irish Bar as the afternoon wore on. With Arsenal songs old and new turning up the volume, a pre-match party was in full swing.

There was a controversial  "Arsene: Thank you for the memories but it's time to say goodbye" banner hung among a few supporters-club flags in the Placa Real, where more pre-match parties were going on. We might be divided in our views, but we are all united by love for the Club, whether you are a "Wenger-Out" or "Wenger-In". The riot police and ambulance crew's presence was conspicuous, but there was no sign of their service being required. It was a relaxing and enjoyable afternoon.

Rain started falling 3 hours before the kick-off. After arriving at the Camp Nou, we had to take shelter in the narrow corridors under the away section until just before the kick-off in our feeble efforts to escape from rain and the cold. With the Champions League anthem ringing out, we reluctantly ventured outside. There were so many stewards in the stadium, but nobody was willing to help us find our seats. In pouring rain and strong wind, seats started filling in the away section, but so many home fans did not bother to turn up in this weather. The stadium was half empty (later on official attendance number was announced as just over 76,000). We knew away supporters would be tucked away up in the cloud. Expect the worst, then you will be pleasantly surprised. A view from the away section was not as bad as expected.

However, the overall condition of the away section was appalling. Earlier this season, Bayern Munich fans walked out of the Champions League group-stage match at the Emirates for the opening 5 minutes in their protest against the ticket price. We don't know how much they had to pay for the match, but we are quite sure that they had a much better deal than we did here at the Camp Nou. We paid €84 or £65 for this colour-faded hard plastic seat on the top layer of the stadium exposed to the elements. Bayern fans must have enjoyed better views in the Emirates' padded seats. We learnt later during our stay in Barcelona that the Camp Nou is classified as a five-star category stadium. What category status has the Emirates been awarded then?

Those who braved the weather were treated to an entertaining game. As Arsene Wenger stated, Barcelona are almost perfect, but not perfect. They always gives you a chance. In fact, we had numerous chances throughout the game. We started brightly. Mesut Ozil carried the ball 30 yards forward before flashing his shot wide from the edge of the box and this was just a beginning. It was disheartening that despite the encouraging start, we fell behind as early as in the 18th minute. However, the goal didn't change the landscape very much. The bottom line was that we still needed 3 goals to progress.

Arsenal got a deserved equaliser 5 minutes into the second half through Elneny's first goal in an Arsenal shirt. The goal changed the entire mood in the away section. We heard one fan say "we might do it".  But Suarez's wonder goal 13 minutes later almost extinguished our hopes. Arsenal didn't give up, though. Welbeck hit the crossbar from the close range and Alexis (how he wanted to score against his old club!) had a goal-bound free-kick well saved. However, it was Barcelona who had the final word. Messi completed an MSN hat-trick to make it 5-1 aggregate.

The scoreline flattered Barcelona. We had enough chances to win the game on the night with Barcelona's defence a suspect, but in the end, what made a difference between the two sides was finishing. We couldn't convert chances we had created, which is an all-too-familiar story in the recent months. Arsenal's European adventure has come to an end for another season, but what mattered was to make sure that the boys would go into the next game with their heads held high. Although the result was not what we hoped for, we were quite happy with our team's spirited performance. We hoped that this night's showing would become a springboard for a successful run-in. Signs are promising as Arsenal ran out a comfortable 2-0 victory at Goodison Park just 65 hours after this match. Making only one forced change from the starting XI that faced Barcelona, Wenger may have found a winning formula.

During the match, there were signs on the board and announcements through the PA system to request Arsenal supporters to remain in their seats until the end of the match. It may have appeared that disappointed away fans deserted their team before the final whistle, but the truth was that they tried to avoid being kept in the stadium for 45 minutes after the match and make their way straight to nearest underground stations. They reached a nearby metro station swiftly only to find it closed.

We saw through the game but made our way swiftly to the covered area as soon as the final whistle had been blown. As expected, we were held inside until all the home crowd donwstairs left the stadium. Relieved from the cold and rain rather than frustrated for the long wait, some Arsenal fans started singing and they were soon joined by others. The bare concrete ceilings created an tremendous acoustic effect, which presented one of the highlights of the night.

We finally got out of the stadium, but we didn't know where we were. Hundreds of stewards, if not thousands, watched us leave the ground as if they had been giving us a guard of honour. There was heavy police presence outside the stadium, with some police officers handling straying away supporters heavy handed. We had no choice but to follow the crowd, without knowing where we were or where we were heading for. Barcelona is an inhospitable city for away supporters. We were very disappointed with how this city and Barcelona FC treated us.

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