By Richard Clarke
Arsenal were battered, bruised but unbeaten by Barcelona in a fabulous Champions League Quarter-Final first leg on Wednesday night.
The Spanish champions waged a war on their hosts in the first half with only Manuel Almunia truly stemming the tide.
However, within 25 seconds of the restart, Zlatan Ibrahimovic chipped the stranded keeper and, just before the hour, the Swedish striker fired Barcelona into a lead against which few could argue.
At this point Arsenal seemed spent. But Theo Walcott thumped home two minutes after coming off the bench and, six minutes from time, Cesc Fabregas was fouled by Carlos Puyol and the Spaniard fired the home side level from the spot.
The Arsenal captain appeared to pull a muscle as he raced back to the centre circle to search for the winner. Having picked up a booking, the midfielder will miss the second leg anyway.
Thanks to his efforts, Wenger's men can travel to the Nou Camp carrying that vital footballing commodity - hope.
The odds are still against Arsenal going through but this incredible tie is NOT over yet.
Barcelona's arrival this evening was big news. Champions League games simply do not come bigger than this.
Actually strike that. Football games simply do not come bigger than this.
A steady stream of blue-and-red Barcelona fans had begun to congregate around Emirates Stadium at lunchtime on Wednesday.
By kick-off, they were noisily ensconced in a corner of the ground.
This game felt historic and, as ever, the Arsenal fans reacted to the occasion. Special banners were unveiled at the north end of the ground and the team emerged to a cacophony of noise.
Both of Arsenal's injury doubts - Fabregas (knee) and William Gallas (calf) - were passed fit. The centre back was returning after missing the previous eight games.
Elsewhere Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri also came in. Denilson, Sol Campbell and Theo Walcott dropped out.
Despite the absence of Thierry Henry, Barcelona's attacking roll call had been billed as frightening - Messi, Ibrahimovic, Xavi et al.
And perhaps that apprehension affected Arsenal as they nearly conceded twice in the opening seconds.
In Barcelona's first attack Ibrahimovic escaped on the right and, his former Ajax team-mate Thomas Vermaelan scuffed the ball behind. From Xavi's corner Sergio Busquets arrived unmarked inside the area and forced a fine save from Almunia. It would be the first of many stops by the Spaniard.
Messi emerged in the fifth minute; dancing through before seeing a shot bounce off the diving keeper.
A couple of seconds later came the clearest effort of the lot. Daniel Alves raced into the area on he right and his low cross found Ibrahimovic unmarked eight yards out. He skied his effort horribly over the bar. A glaring miss.
The visitors were in supreme control. Xavi collected Seydou Kieta's knockdown and Messi saw a drive blocked and, on the quarter-hour, Almunia made a couple of stunning saves.
His point-blank block from Busquets hit both his hands. Before that he had also thrust out a left paw to bat away Ibrahimovic when the Swede was bearing down on goal.
Song also cleared a bouncing goalbound effort and Sagna nodded over the bar from Maxwell's drive.
If this has been a boxing match, it may have been stopped. Arsenal were still on their feet but they were taken unnecessary punishment.
In the 18th minute, a glance at the statistics showed Barca had enjoyed 76 per cent of the possession. In England, win, lose or draw, that is always Arsenal's key number. The hunters were being hunted.
In the 20th minute Arshavin's cross caused welcome consternation in the Barcelona area. It was the first tiny sign that Arsenal were breaking out. When Nasri's left-wing curler drifted inches wide the feeling had much more gravitas.
Seconds after Clichy got away with a nudge on Messi in the area, Eboue replaced Arshavin. The 28-year-old had picked up a knock a few minutes earlier and, after coming off, went straight down the tunnel for treatment
By now Arsenal were keeping Barca at bay. Their clear-cut opportunities had dried up and Almunia's duties were more caretaking and lost-cause saving.
And, seven minutes from the break, the home might have taken the lead. Nasri's cross went between Alves and Busquets to Bendtner at the far post. The unmarked Dane did not know he had been flagged offside when he fired at Victor Valdes and planted the rebound against the post.
Four minutes later, the Gallas gambled failed. The Frenchman limped off and Arsenal were playing with 10 men for some minutes.
In the intervening time there was more drama. Nasri's low cross was cleared by a desperate Puyol with Bendtner prowling at the far post. Then Fabregas fouled Busquets and received a yellow card that puts him out of the return game at the Nou Camp.
The captain held his head in his hands. He knew the importance of the moment.
It was bitter way to end the half but Arsenal just had to be thankful to be still in the tie.
In fact, the goal Barcelona had threatened throughout the first half came after 25 seconds of the restart. Puyol hoisted a long ball forward, Ibrahimovic raced on to it and lifted an angled ball over Almunia and into the net.
As it deserved as it was, the manner of the finish came as a surprise.
Arsenal did their best to respond. In the 56th minute, Clichy reached the byline and sent over a hanging cross. Bendtner met it perfectly but Valdes dived to his right to paw the ball away. It was Arsenal's clearest chance of the game by some way.
However, in keeping with the nature of this match, the home side were rocked on their heels immediately. Daniel Alves clipped a cross from the right and Xavi, unmarked, slid a header wide from six yards out.
Just before the hour, Barcelona struck an all too simple second. Ibrahimovic timed his run perfectly and Alves lofted a pass down the right-hand channel. The tall striker was one-on-one with Almunia and fired home clinically at the near post.
Wenger made his last change - Walcott for Sagna. The effect was almost immediate and, two minutes later, Nasri and Bendtner put him into open space on the right-hand side. The England international raced into the area and fired a low drive under the right hand of Valdes.
It was not just a goal. It was a lifeline.
Messi might have put Barcelona out of sight in the 76th minute but, yet again, Almunia proved his equal. And, as if Barcelona did not have enough options, Henry then came off the bench.
But Arsenal would find their salvation with six minutes left. Bendtner cleverly chested the ball down to Fabregas six yards out. Puyol clattered in to him as he was set to pull the trigger. It was a crystal clear penalty and the Barcelona captain duly received a red card.
His opposite number was immaculate from the spot.
Fabregas raced into to collect the ball and trotted back to the centre circle. In the process, something in his leg seemed to ‘go'. With all the substitutes made, he was a limping passenger for the final minutes.
They passed with little to report. Finally this maelstrom of a match had settled down.
Henry got a special ovation as he left the pitch. He responded in kind and stopped to sign a few autographs.
Clearly, he has not been forgotten by anyone at Arsenal.
Though he did not star this evening, the 60,000 witnesses inside Emirates will remember the game in which he returned for years to come.
- Sagna 66
- Gallas 45
- Song Yellow Card
- Diaby Yellow Card
- Fabregas Goal! Yellow Card
- Arshavin 27 Yellow Card
- Eboue 27 Yellow Card
- Denilson 45
- Walcott 66 Goal!
- Puyol (C) Red Card
- Pique Yellow Card
- Messi 87
- Ibrahimovic 76 Goal! Goal!
- Milito 87
- Henry 76