All eyes were on the Catalan capital last night. The most hotly anticipated Champions League clash of the season had finally arrived and the world held its breath to see if Arsenal would capitalize on their 2- 1 first leg advantage. Fortune often favours the brave, and Arsenal’s team selection dashed any notions of defending their slender lead. They arrived, intent on pressing the makeshift Barcelona defense, with Wenger only too aware that if they could penetrate the creaking back line and draw first blood, the Blaugrana would have a mountain to climb.
Both squads have been ravaged by injuries since the white-knuckle prequel at the Emirates three weeks ago. Theo Walcott and Alex Song were among the walking wounded for Arsenal. Barcelona’s injury woes, however, were not confined to the players. Pep Guardiola’s acute back pain was made all the worse by the weight of expectation, coupled with the absence of his captain Carles Puyol and the suspended Gerard Pique. Meanwhile, the Camp Nou growled with anticipation for what promised to be one of football’s more memorable nights.
Barcelona gun down Arsenal
For the home team to overturn the deficit it was vital to hit the ground running. Welcomes for the prodigal son Cesc Fabregas were put on hold as the whistle sounded and the opening exchanges proved to be frantic. Surprise choice Adriano added width on the left flank. Clichy sent Xavi tumbling in the first minute and Alves and Nasri tussled for dominance on the right. Arsenal succeeded in mounting the pressure in the opening minutes and it took Barcelona time to settle. On the quarter-hour mark, a cynical challenge earned Laurent Koscielny a yellow card and the resulting long range free kick from Alves was saved comfortably by Szczesny. However, the seemingly routine stop, seemed to cause the Arsenal goalkeeper some discomfort. Protests of time wasting from the home crowd were silenced as Almunia took to the field as Szczesny was clearly unable to continue.
Barcelona dominated and on twenty six minutes they boasted 68% possession, however they were unable to capitalize on their chances. Messi was guilty of over-playing the ball and both Villa and Pedro had shots on target. Messi had a genuine penalty shout on the half hour, and minutes later Barcelona tried to turn the screw but a tame Villa shot was snuffed out under pressure. The closing moments of the half, were marred by frayed tempers. Van Persie’s slap on Alves earned him a yellow and the beautiful game the fixture had promised to be, became tarnished by indiscipline from both camps. As the five minute injury time trundled to a close, an all-too casual Fabregas back heel, was pounced upon by Iniesta. If Van Persie’s recovery from injury seemed miraculous yesterday – it was Iniesta’s footwork at the edge of the area that was truly divine today. The world cup winner shuffled past two challenges before teeing up Lionel Messi who toe tapped the ball over the keeper before sinking it in the open net. At half time a deflated Arsenal retreated to the dressing room only too aware that they needed a fresh game plan in the second half. Getting the ball would be a good start.
The second half started brightly with Messi and Adriano applying good pressure on both flanks, earning the home side two early corners. As Nasri and Alves continued to battle for supremacy, an early corner swung in by the Frenchman gifted the Londoner’s an own goal from a Busquets blunder. Seconds later Villa was one on one with Almunia who continued to deny. The Barcelona panic was short-lived, however, as Van Persie was red carded in the fifty sixth minute for playing on, after the whistle had sounded for off-side. An enraged Arsenal pled his innocence, citing an inability to hear above the deafening home support and even the Barcelona players seemed sympathetic as he left the field.
Alves, Villa, Adriano and Messi all had chances soon after. Barcelona applied the pressure and Arsenal soaked it up, but they couldn’t withstand wave after wave of attack. On 68 minutes, beautiful footwork by Iniesta cut through the heart of the Arsenal defence and a lay off from Villa allowed Xavi to bundle the ball into the Arsenal net. Celebrations in the Camp Nou had scarcely died down when Xavi was on hand again to put Pedro through only to be chopped down by Koscielny. The referee pointed to the spot and Messi coolly slotted home to make it 3 -1.
Wenger tried to reshuffle the deck, and replaced Rosicky with Arshavin and eventually called an ineffective Cesc Fabregas ashore to make way for Bendtner, however it was all to be in vain. Save for a heart stopping moment when the effervescent Wilshere put Bendtner through with a sensationally weighted pass, which could, and perhaps should have broken Catalan hearts, it was Javier Mascherano’s season saving tackle which denied an Arsenal comeback in the dying moments.
Wenger and Van Persie were clearly embittered in their verbal assault of the referee in their post match reactions, however any team which fails to register a single shot on goal can surely not claim to be the better side. Once again, Arsenal left the city of Barcelona bruised and humiliated with no player in any rush to return to the Camp Nou. Well…. maybe just their captain!
Written by: Padraig
PS. This is my first article/review on this site.