UEFA Champions League Round of 16, 1st Leg
Arsenal 2 – 1 FC Barcelona
0 – 1 Villa (26)
1 – 1 van Persie (78)
2 – 1 Arshavin (83)
Arsenal travel to the Camp Nou in three weeks time with a deserved first leg advantage, a rousing second half performance that was supported ably by the counter-punching of the first.
It leaves Arsenal with a slim lead in the second leg, wary of the attacking strength of their opponents, encouraged by their defensive weaknesses, problems that will be exacerbated by the absence of the suspended Piquet.
Rarely do matches where the media hype has gone into overdrive, live up to expectations; this one did. Barcelona had marginally more possession overall – dominant in the first half, pegged back in the second. Arsenal had more goal threat.
Samir Nasri returned to the starting line-up, a change that would be vindicated as the Frenchman’s confidence returned through the ninety minutes on pitch. Otherwise the teamsheet was as expected.
The night dew glistened on the pitch, Arsenal and Barcelona went toe-to-toe with passing styles that gave a masterclass in how football should be played. It was a mesmirising affair; all of the intricacies that were the Catalans are renowned for were matched by the hosts, whose pace exposed the gaps left by pretty patterns being woven across the pitch.
As early as the third minute, Theo Walcott gave notice of the attacking threat, a rapier thrust that ended with van Persie caught offside, Samir Nasri unmarked on the left might have been the better choice.
Arsenal dominated the early spell, surprising the visitors with their sharpness in the tackle, their tenacity in chasing the ball when possession surrendered. Such a start merited the opening goal and it so nearly came when Robin van Persie unleashed a thumping left-footed drive, Valdes parrying away to safety.
Barcelona struck back shortly after. Villa and Messi interchanged positions and passes, the Argentinean raced clear to face Szczesny, the young Pole stood tall, waited, the shot went past him and the far post, narrowly. The goalkeeper though did everything right and that which was expected of him, as he did for the whole of the match.
Messi clipped an effort tamely into the hands of Szczesny before a counter-punch almost had Barcelona reeling. Walcott broke free and found Fàbregas free on the right flank. The Spaniard delivered an inch from perfect cross, Abidal able to glance clear before van Persie arriving behind him, could head home.
Within a minute, the home side were left rocking. Once more Villa and Messi combined to slice through the central area of the Arsenal defence, the Spanish striker free in the area to slide the ball under the onrushing Szczesny. It was the first defensive lapse by Arsenal, the centre backs drawn to the ball, Clichy not keeping tabs on the offside trap being played. No-one individual to blame, a collective failure.
The visitors pressed home their advantage; Arsenal were blocking efforts from the Catalans before a clear sight of goal could be achieved but jabbing with counter-attacks whilst they regrouped, most notably when Jack Wilshere strode through the Barcelona midfield before van Persie shot wide.
History almost repeated itself when Messi was correctly ruled offside (as replays later proved), bundling home Pedro’s scuffed effort. One year on and Arsenal faced trailing at the interval by two goals; this time Arsenal maintained a retrievable one-goal deficit.
The break allowed Arsenal to regroup and emerge more determined to establish parity. Pedro escaped a yellow card for a theatrical dive over Koscielny in the area before a Nasri cross was intercepted as van Persie was once more arriving to slide home had the ball reached him.
With a quarter of the game remaining, Arsène made a game changing substitution. Alex Song had been excellent and disciplined, playing over an hour on a yellow card. Wenger admitted that this was part of the reason for the change but more that he was determined to go for it. Arshavin arrived; Walcott soon after, Bendtner his replacement.
Fifteen minutes later and the changes were entirely vindicated. As the eighty minute mark approached, Clichy chipped the perfect ball over the Barcelona defence, van Persie clear on the left struck accurately past Valdes at the near post; Bob Wilson and Manuel Almunia might empathise with the Catalan but sympathy is in short supply.
Having drawn level, Arsenal turned the screw even further. Five minutes later Nasri sprinted clear of Barcelona on the right side, remained calm and waited for support to arrive. As the defenders sought to establish a wall to snuffle out the chance, Arshavin arrived stage left, Nasri picked him out and the Russian curled the ball around Abidal and past a stranded Valdes.
It was a glorious Emirates Evening; a win that did so much good for the club on so many levels. The players proved to themselves and outsiders that they can compete at the highest levels and emerge victorious; the support rocked, Barcelona rolled, their air of invincibility shattered. Now Arsenal need to take it one stage further and produce a performance of equal stature in northern Spain.