Arsenal fightback against Barcelona master-class VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS
By Jonny Payne.
Arsenal produced a magnificent battling performance last night to come back from two down with goals from Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas to draw a game they really should have lost to a majestic Barcelona in their Champions league quarter-final.
From the first whistle, Arsenal looked overawed and nervous, as Barcelona didn’t allow Wenger’s charges to settle on the ball. But for some wasteful finishing from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and some magnificent saves from Manuel Almunia, Arsenal could well have been four down by the interval.
It was quickly turning out to be a re-enactment of The Battle of the Somme, with Arsene Wenger leading his young lambs to the slaughter with Barcelona encamped in their opponents half for much of the first half.
Too many Arsenal players were hiding in their trenches hoping for the attacks to pass without casualty, but soon Barcelona hit the target.
Just 30 seconds after the restart Ibrahimovic made amends for his earlier misses, lifting the ball over a hapless Almunia and into a gaping net.
The Swede soon made it 2-0, as another long ball over the top found the tall striker who controlled and then let fire past Almunia once more, this time with the Arsenal goalkeeper firmly rooted on his line.
But Arsenal didn’t give up and two substitutes helped to change the game. Theo Walcott’s pace helped to finally force Arsenal onto the front foot, backed up by the effervescent Emmanuel Eboue. The pressure soon told, and the England international raced onto a clever ball by Nicklas Bendtner to dispatch a low effort under the despairing Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal.
With five minutes remaining, Walcott’s cross was nodded into the path of Fabregas by Bendtner, and the Arsenal captain was felled in the area by fellow Catalan Carles Puyol. Fabregas stepped up to score the penalty himself, as Puyol took an early bath.
All talk before kick-off was whether Fabregas and William Gallas would return from their injuries, both did with Alex Song moving back into his familiar midfield position to accommodate Gallas who had missed the past eight weeks with a calf injury. Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin and Abou Diaby had also overcome knocks to make the starting line-up.
The Emirates was buzzing at kick-off in anticipation of a free-flowing match between two of the best footballing sides around, but optimism soon turned to fear as Barcelona cut through Arsenal with ease from the off.
First, Daniel Alves broke down Arsenal’s left and sent in an inviting low cross towards two of his teammates in the box, but Thomas Vermaelen managed to get there first to clear for a corner.
Then, from the corner, the ball found it’s way to Sergi Busquets whose snap-shot was heading into the net until Almunia stuck out a flailing arm to turn it wide.
Barcelona sensed a weakness on Arsenal’s left with Gael Clichy exposed due to the disappointing Arshavin ahead of him, and a very narrow midfield. The Frenchman had to deal with both Lionel Messi and Dani Alves for much of the first period.
It was becoming an onslaught as Barcelona tried every way to make a breakthrough, but time and time again Manuel Almunia stood in their way. The Spaniard was obviously determined to make a late bid for a place in the European Champions World Cup squad for the summer.
Meanwhile, Arsenal’s midfield and defence struggled to keep up with the movement of the likes of Messi, Pedro and Xavi.
When Arsenal did eventually get the ball, Barcelona pressed and hustled the men in red, forcing mistakes, particularly from right-back Bacary Sagna, Andrei Arshavin and Abou Diaby.
With Arshavin forced off with an injury, the gamble to play Gallas from the start also backfired as he succumbed once again to his calf injury. Wenger introduced Denilson for the Frenchman, dropping Song back to partner Vermaelen.
By now Wenger had used two of his three permitted subs with only 44 minutes gone, it was starting to turn into a disastrous game for the Gunners, but at least they went into the interval on level terms.
That soon changed, however, as seconds into the second period, Gerard Pique sent a long ball towards Ibrahimovic. With Vermaelen underneath the ball, Song failed to track the Swede and with Almunia in no man’s land the skilful striker lifted it over the Spaniard and into the net.
From hero in the first half, Almunia had undone all of his hard work in seconds, with another unfortunate error. At least the ‘keeper escaped the initial wrath of Wenger as the Arsenal manager had not even taken his seat after the restart.
Arsenal looked to respond straight away and they did have a glorious chance to equalise. A tantalising cross by Clichy found Bendtner arriving late in the box, the ball was a perfect height for the Dane but his header was too close to Victor Valdes who turned the ball away. The striker should have done better, but it was a truly world-class save by Valdes.
In what was soon becoming an end-to-end game, Xavi found himself unmarked in the box, but he couldn’t direct his header goalwards – but soon the Catalans had their second.
With almost a carbon-copy delivery to the first goal, this time from Barca’s playmaker Xavi, Ibrahimovic was again free to try his luck. This time Almunia opted to stay on his line, but he could not do much to stop the thunderbolt of a shot going into the top corner – two-nil to Barcelona.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Wenger decided to bring on Walcott for Sagna. With Eboue dropping to right-back and the England international ahead of him, there was suddenly an abundance of pace on Arsenal’s right.
Walcott got the better of Maxwell on a couple of occasions soon after coming on and Arsenal saw this area as an opportunity to exploit the Champions League winners.
It soon worked, as Bendtner’s clever ball found Walcott bursting into the box, the England striker took a touch before side-footing the ball towards goal, Valdes dived over it and the ball squirmed in. With the deficit halved, and the stadium rocking once more, Arsenal soon went in search for the second.
Whether Barcelona were tiring or just suffering from complacency, Arsenal soon gained control. With Fabregas, Denilson and Diaby now getting the better of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Seydou Keita in midfield and Walcott and Eboue causing havoc on the right, Arsenal were in the ascendency.
Going into the second leg at the Nou Camp trailing to arguably the best club side in the past twenty years was not ideal, so Arsenal needed a second goal – and it duly arrived.
Walcott again found space on the right, this time he decided to cross, Bendtner found enough space in the box to cushion a header to Fabregas and the Barcelona captain Carles Puyol got his legs in a tangle with his Arsenal counterpart just as he was about to pull the trigger.
The Swiss referee, who had until then been softer than Gruyere cheese in favour of Barcelona, gave the decision Arsenal’s way. Puyol was dismissed and Fabregas put the ball on the spot.
Despite Puyol’s delaying tactics, Fabregas kept his cool to hit a low, hard shot to the ‘keepers right to score against his boyhood club. The celebrations soon turned to anguish though as Fabregas limped meekly towards the halfway line.
Arsenal had little time to capitalise on the man advantage, if you could call it that with Fabregas hobbling, and they will go into the second leg surprisingly on level terms. Surely though, Wenger would settle for that after the first-half master class from their visitors.
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