Arsenal came from 2-0 down to draw with Barcelona in a pulsating encounter at the Emirates in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final. A red card to Carles Puyol, suspensions to himself and Gerard Pique ahead of the second leg and a further injury to Gunners skipper Cesc Fabregas added to the drama.
There was plenty of hype before the match due to the fact that this was viewed as a tie between two teams who can guarantee pure, entertaining football- and they didn’t disappoint. The 2-2 result means that Arsenal still have it all to do in just under a week’s time at the Nou Camp where they must score to have a chance of progressing to the semi-finals.
Such was Barcelona’s start to the match that they could have effectively ended the tie, let alone the first leg, after the first 20 minutes. They passed their way around Arsenal, showing great pace and movement to their play that left the majority of the stadium shocked. Such was their control and domination of the game that it was hard to believe they were the away side. It was only wasteful finishing from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and great goalkeeping from Manuel Almunia that kept the scores level.
However, the first chance fell to Sergio Busquets who forced Almunia to save low and quickly after Barcelona had won a corner, and just as they began to play the game in Arsenal’s half, Lionel Messi made his mark on the game with a run through the middle and as it opened up for him, from the edge of the box, Almunia blocked his goal-bound shot. The first of Ibrahimovic’s misses arrived soon after when Dani Alves beat the offside trap and from the corner of the box he played a low, crisp ball that arrived at the Swedish striker’s feet only for him to blaze over from six yards.
As the home fans started becoming frustrated at the failings of Arsenal, Barcelona created even more opportunities. Once again Almunia proved to be a wall as he saved in quick succession from Ibrahimovic, Xavi and then Alex Song cleared a shot of the line. Midway through the first-half, Arsenal finally grew in to the game and were on the attack as Samir Nasri came inches close when he curled a shot from the right-hand side of the box and was whiskers away. Injuries soon became Arsenal’s downfall as the evening looked like heading towards a disaster as Andrey Arshavin and William Gallas both came off injured.
Arsenal were lucky to go in with the scores 0-0 at half-time but much to Arsene Wenger’s frustration, Barcelona, and Ibrahimovic who was bound to score after all the chances he had, finally did just that seconds in to the re-start. The goal can be described as brilliant thinking and finishing by the striker but very questionable goalkeeping from Almunia. He came out to chase Pique’s long ball but was left stranded as Ibrahimovic lifted the ball over his head in to the back of the net. Nicklas Bendtner could have equalised minutes later but found his powerful header when straight to the hands of Victor Valdes.
Soon after, it was 2-0 to Barcelona and Ibrahimovic bagged a brace. He found space in between Arsenal’s central defenders, as the whole backline remained static and collected another long ball, this time from Xavi, ran on to it and struck a powerful shot in to the roof of the net at the near post. This now had the potential for the Spanish side to produce a cricket score, but as they slowed their game down, Arsenal came in to the match and were to show remarkable character for the final 25 minutes.
Theo Walcott, on as a substitute, immediately got everyone on the edge of their seats as he ran at the defence without fear and his courage paid off when he scored to give Arsenal hope. He was played in with a slide rule pass and, cutting in from the right-hand side, he sent the ball under Valdes and all of a sudden there was hope for the home team. Barcelona were not going to go in to their shell as Messi ran clear soon after and from a low and tight angle only found Almunia when a pass to team-mates joining the counter-attack was the better option.
There was to be one more twist in this fantastic match, as Fabregas won a dubious penalty after he had been fouled by Puyol, who was sent off. The ball seemed to have already passed Fabregas as he attempted to take a shot and Puyol caught the back of his leg and the Arsenal captain went down. From the spot, he kept his cool as he lashed home the penalty down the centre and give his team some hope going in to the second leg.
Barcelona will rue not taking their chances, and whilst Arsenal showed great spirit to come back, the Spanish team will fancy their chances at their home ground next Tuesday. Wenger believes his side can still go through, whilst he acknowledged that the opposition were class. He said: “We have to go for it. It would be a big achievement but we believe we can do it. Barca’s display was art. It was a great football night and I don’t deny we were outplayed most of the game.”
Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola claimed that this was the best he had ever seen his team play. He said: “We came away from our place and played our style of football. We’ve done a great thing and have a great chance of qualifying for the next round. Last year, we won all the prizes but we never played away in the Champions League like today. Never, never. The first 45 minutes was the best my team has played.”
Click below to see highlights of the match, and all four goals.
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