x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Barcelona v Arsenal: a victim of the Champions League draw

Barcelona and Arsenal made for great Champions League drama, it was just a shame that it happened so early in the tournament.

Before another heaving European football night drifts to the back corners of the memory vault, let's stop to bemoan another of sport's necessary imperfections: draws.

The various machines that decide draws for tournaments can be ignorant, unfeeling or, in the case of Barcelona against Arsenal in the last 16 of the European Champions League, downright rude.



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We all love the drama of tournaments; they seem to bond the planet in rare raptness. You could cup your ear yesterday morning and almost hear chattering in most of the 24 main time zones (possibly excluding some Pacific-island areas) over that beast of a match between Barcelona and Arsenal. But the draw lottery in many sports, determining who will play whom, well, it …

It's just so imperfect.

Sure, imperfections pockmarked a Barcelona-Arsenal match that qualified as compelling but did not qualify as great. It had poor refereeing in the second yellow card dealt to Robin van Persie for booting a ball one second after a whistle. It had lopsided statistics such as 738-199 (number of completed passes, in Barcelona's favour) and 19-0 (number of shots). It had an Arsenal side strangely docile in added time as if either exhausted or unable to calculate that one goal would have sufficed.

But even as the meeting lit up a crowded room with big video screens on a weeknight midnight 5,138 kilometres away in Abu Dhabi, and even as you could imagine similar rooms all over the globe, the most terrible imperfection had come last December 17.

That was when the witless draw in Switzerland, the pristine home of many a draw or envelope-opening, spat out Barcelona and Arsenal opposite one another at the last 16 stage.

Certainly Arsenal deserved some blame for finishing only second in their qualifying group, but the draw among the eight possible foes still merited a groan. It ensured that one of the two picturesque sides would exit too soon.

Either Barcelona or Arsenal would go out on March 8 rather than in April or May, and a tournament would go diminished, with probably no superior way to run it than using the dumb old, mean old draw.

Now, I realise that some people have a point when they find it a bit rich hearing Arsenal fans tout playing style when once upon a time they sang one-nil. I realise some people chafe over all the platitudes about Barcelona's and Arsenal's beauty and watchability. I realise some people prefer a rougher brand of football. I realise some people tire of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's image as some sort of artisan.

I also realise that these people are, of course, wrong, and that they are certainly entitled to their wrongness. In no way would I deny them their right to be wrong.

By mid-May, this lamentable tie right off the bat in the knockout stage might end up having pitted the 2010/11 champions of the world's two best leagues. That would prove again that following sport is partly about grappling with imperfections, even if no imperfection seems to get people talking quite like poor refereeing. The prospect for klutzy draws haunts many a sport.

Recent-years example: in September 2008, a New York crowd rose unstoppably to its feet after a 16-shot rally in a sterling match between two all-time great tennis players who - remarkably - happen to be sisters. That was newsworthy because the matches between Venus and Serena Williams had gained notoriety as dull for reasons that probably include too many psychological layers to peel.

Still, nobody much remembers anymore that one of the finest-quality matches of the era ended 7-6, 7-6 or that Serena Williams saved 10 set points in winning, or that the match might have defined Serena's steel will more than any, or that she said afterward: "I mean, I feel like I should have a trophy now."

Nobody remembers because she did not have a trophy then and would not for two more matches, because that was the accepted quirk known as the quarter-final that happened to pair the best two players.

And while tennis draws differ from football draws, and the Williamses' limited tour schedule hampered their rankings and enabled such a draw, many a tournament in many a sport creaks with the foul whim of the draw.

We accept the imperfection and soldier on. For instance, I understand they will have an FA Cup quarter-final on Saturday, and that a draw not held in Switzerland - north-west London, actually - somehow spat out Arsenal opposite Manchester United.

As a fan of neither side but of football, I quietly resent that one also.