By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
You must beat the best to be the best - and Arsenal are right on course.
Two goals within five minutes deep into the second half of this exhilarating Champions League encounter turned the tide towards Arsène Wenger's side on Wednesday night.
Barcelona were brilliant in the first half. David Villa prodded them in front and throughout the 45 minutes they wove a wonderful tapestry of passes. As in the Quarter-Final first leg 12 months ago, Arsenal looked lost.
Little really changed in the second half until, 12 minutes from time, Robin van Persie crashed home a cross-shot from an incredible angle. In the 83rd minute, Samir Nasri set up substitute Andrey Arshavin to slot home the winner.
It was a stunning comeback and almost certainly Arsenal’s greatest victory at Emirates Stadium.
Remember Barcelona's record-breaking run of 16 straight wins in Liga had only ended at the weekend. And this was only their second meaningful defeat of the season. Barcelona were reputed to be the best team in the world and they were bang in form.
Wenger’s men still have a mammoth task on their hands at the Nou Camp in three weeks time. But they now know they can battle with the best and win.
If they can complete the job in Barcelona, then who knows what they can do.
All eyes were on Arsenal’s No 8 pre-match. When the team-sheets came out Samir Nasri was listed in the team and not on the bench. It was his first appearance since limping off with a hamstring injury against Huddersfield on January 30.
The only other change was enforced. Bacary Sagna was suspended after his dismissal in the final minute of the final group game back in December. Emmanuel Eboue took up the right back role.
Emirates Stadium was a sea of flags as the two teams came out. The Club had put one on every seat and, as usual, the crowd responded wonderfully.
Arsenal may have played Barcelona in last season’s Quarter-Final but the novelty, nor the excitement, had worn off.
This was simply massive.
The early moments were more frantic than finessed. Everyone expected a reprise of that toe-to-toe slugfest last season – except this time the hope was that Arsenal would not take all the early punches squarely on the chin.
And they did not. In fact, they bossed the opening 10 minutes.
Theo Walcott was the spearhead. He sprinted through the midfield in the fourth minute before trying to set up Van Persie on the right of the area. The Dutchman was wrongly called offside.
Then the winger cut in from the right and a Fabregas chip found Van Persie momentarily free at the far post. The Dutchman hooked his shot goalward but Victor Valdes blocked.
Barcelona had been quiet until now. But having dampened Arsenal’s early spark they started to press and hold a higher defensive line.
It soon produced a clear chance. In the 15th minute, Lionel Messi was released by Villa to go one-on-one with Wojciech Szczesny. The little maestro clipped his shot past the keeper but it drifted inches past the far post.
The chance was a reminder of Barcelona’s quicksilver capabilities – like anyone needed one.
By now the visitors had snatched control. Villa whipped in a dangerous cross from the right, Messi chipped a shot into the hands of Szczesny. Arsenal were giving the ball away and struggling to hold them off.
The home side needed a release – and, in the 25th minute, Walcott found them one.
After a Barcelona attack broke down, he sprinted clear and, with the visitors stretched, found Fabregas on the right of the area. His cross seemed destined for the head of the unmarked Van Persie at the far post only for Eric Abidal to nod the ball clear at the last second.
It was Arsenal’s best chance but it did not stem the tide. Quite the opposite in fact.
In the 26th minute, Messi scuttled past Alex Song in midfield and split the Arsenal defence to release Villa. The striker tucked away a simple shot through the keeper’s legs.
Arsenal had been picked apart.
The striker nearly grabbed an immediate second when Daniel Alves found him at the near post. Somehow Arsenal smuggled the ball away.
But Barcelona’s high line did leave them liable to the counter-attack when, on the rare occasion, they lost the ball. There was one example on the half-hour when Jack Wilshere, Arsenal’s best player on the night, strode forward to set up Van Persie. The Dutchman slashed his shot wide.
However these were snatched opportunities. Barcelona were bullying Arsenal with their passing, pressing and movement.
Seven minutes from the whistle, Messi bundled home a close-range header from Pedro’s pass. Thankfully he was flagged offside.
At half-time, there was a strange comparison to make with last season’s game.
Arsenal had been more over-run 12 months ago but this time they were trailing and, on the balance of play, it might have been worse.
Wenger clearly roused his side at the interval because they were better immediately after the restart. Wilshere had an effort saved by Valdes and Van Persie fired over. Territorially Arsenal were on top but they were not creating too much.
This time, it was Barcelona who were playing on the break. In the 56th minute, Pedro went clear and tumbled under the challenge of Koscielny. If it was a penalty then it was a red card too and, probably, game over.
Replays fully justified the referee’s decision to wave play on. Like Wilshere, the Frenchman had an immaculate night.
Nasri’s low cross towards Van Persie at the near post was slid away from danger at the last second.
However, we reached the midway point of the second half, Barcelona were once again turning the screw. Messi danced through only to see his shot blocked. Eboue returned the ball immediately to Andreas Iniesta who slid the Argentinean into space on the left of the area. He could only find the sidenetting.
In the 68th minute, Wenger withdrew Song for Arshavin. It was an attacking move but the Cameroonian had been on a knife-edge since receiving a yellow card in the first five minutes and Arsenal were struggling with 11 men let alone 10.
Nicklas Bendtner came on for Walcott 10 minutes later.
The game seemed to be drifting to its conclusion now. Barcelona were happy enough with 1-0 and Arsenal were struggling create anything close to a clear-cut chance.
Then lightning struck.
Gael Clichy clipped a nonchalant ball to Van Persie on the left-hand byline. The angle was impossibly acute and Gerard Pique was on patrol. However Vales had drifted away from his post and the Dutcman let fly. The ball kissed the near post and flew just inside the far. Stunning.
Like last year, an Arsenal goal suddenly belittled Barcelona. The home side flew into their task and, five minutes later, lighting struck again.
Nasri flew down the right and, with Barcelona undermanned, he showed sufficient poise to settle himself and pick out Arshavin at the far post.
Cool as you like, the Russian found the far corner.
Bendtner saw an angled shot batted away by Valdes. Szczesny saved similarly from Pedro at the other end.
The home held their nerve for a famous win. Barcelona were the more beautiful side on the night but Arsenal had the victory.
This was a turnaround in every sense.
Roll on the return leg.
- Walcott 77
- Song 68 Yellow Card
- Nasri Yellow Card
- van Persie Goal! Yellow Card
- Bendtner 77
- Arshavin 68 Goal!
- Dani Alves
- Villa 68 Goal!
- Pique Yellow Card
- Iniesta 89 Yellow Card
- Keita 68
- Adriano 89