Gunners rally to stun Barca
Second-half comeback seals success over Catalan giants
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp. Last Updated: 16/02/11 10:23pm
Arshavin was the hero with his late winner
Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie gave Arsenal their first-ever victory over Barcelona in another UEFA Champions League classic between the two European heavyweights.
The Gunners were on the ropes at half-time in the first leg of their last-16 showdown at Emirates Stadium as they trailed to David Villa's 26th minute opener but ended the match very much in the ascendancy against the tournament favourites.
Barca could have had more than just a one-goal lead at the break but paid the price for taking their foot off the gas following the interval with Arsene Wenger's men going toe-to-toe with the Catalan giants in a genuine football feast.
Robin van Persie levelled the scores from an acute angle 12 minutes from time with Victor Valdes very culpable before substitute Andrey Arshavin sparked scenes of delirium in North London as he set the seal on a flowing move which was as good as anything Pep Guardiola's side could offer.
Arsenal settled quickly and Samir Nasri's free-kick went all the way through to the goalkeeper, before Cesc Fabregas' delightful scooped pass gave Van Persie a sight of goal but Valdes saved well from his powerful close-range angled drive.
Alex Song went into the book early on after a crude challenge on Lionel Messi as Barca looked to launch a lightning counter-attack, with the Gunners midfielder perhaps fortunate to escape further retribution for his petulant response to a clear caution.
The Catalan club, wearing their surgical green away kit, tested the Gunners with their trademark one-touch passing with Villa's neat incision almost bringing the opening goal as he released Messi through the middle, only for the Argentine genius to chip just wide after waiting and waiting for Wojciech Szczesny to go down.
A stunning burst of pace from Theo Walcott saw Wenger's side go within inches of taking the lead as the England man raced into enemy territory before playing in Fabregas, whose clipped cross took out Valdes but was crucially flicked away by Eric Abidal with Van Persie ready to head into an empty net.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Barca took the lead. Messi, as so often, was the architect as he escaped from Song before a precision through-ball dissected Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou allowing Villa to confidently find the back of the net with a smart finish.
It could have been even worse for the Gunners as another slick move saw Pedro's audacious back-heel kept out by Szczesny at the near post, before Van Persie slashed wide when he should have done so much better after Jack Wilshere's surge from midfield and measured pass to the edge of the box.
Barca had the ball in the net again before the interval, but the assistant's flag ruled out Messi's close-range header following a weaving run from the diminutive playmaker with Pedro's shot saved before his team-mate nodded home.
Wenger sent his men out early for the second period and they started with purpose, just as they did in the first, with Wilshere playing a one-two with Fabregas on the edge of the box only for his shot to lack power as it went through to Valdes.
But Guardiola's side were always a threat and a stunning long pass turned defence into attack with Koscielny lucky not to concede a penalty and receive a red card for his clumsy challenge on Pedro as the ball dropped into the area.
Arsenal were enjoying greater control of the match and Van Persie stabbed wide at the near post after good work from Fabregas and Nasri before the Holland international curled an effort from outside the box straight into Valdes' midriff.
Messi, who has now not scored in eight attempts on English soil, went close again, but could only find the side-netting, before the intent of both managers became apparent as Seydou Keita replaced Villa, while Arshavin was thrown into the fray for Song.
Wenger made a second change with 14 minutes to go, sending on Nicklas Bendtner for Walcott, with Abidal making a superb sliding challenge to deny Wilshere as the young Gunner prepared to pull the trigger in the box.
However, Arsenal's persistence finally paid off and they pulled themselves level 12 minutes from time as Clichy's ball over the top cut out Gerard Pique to find Van Persie who smashed the ball beyond Valdes at his near post from the tightest of angles with the goalkeeper anticipating a pull-back.
And moments later they were ahead as Fabregas' stunning pass sent Nasri steaming clear, with the Frenchman showing great awareness to hold play up and feed Arshavin who passed the ball home beyond an unsighted Valdes.Barcelona pressed for a leveller but could not break through again, although Arshavin was fortunate to escape late penalty appeals, and the hosts held on for a 2-1 triumph which sets up an enthralling second leg showdown at Camp Nou on 8th March, live on Sky Sports HD2 and Sky Sports 2.
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