Nou or never as Arsenal fight back


Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1:ARSENAL WOULD not tolerate a remake of the past. They had taken just a draw with Barcelona at home last year before being knocked out of the Champions League. Here, they rallied from 1-0 down to win. Robin van Persie tied the score with a drive that beat the goalkeeper Victor Valdes at his near post 11 minutes from time.

Four minutes later, Cesc Fabregas set Samir Nasri moving on the right and the cut-back was drilled home perfectly by the substitute Andrey Arshavin.

There was a conviction to Arsenal that offered yet another illustration of the maturity being attained. The return is perilous, but Barcelona themselves will suspect this team will not be brushed aside at Camp Nou as it was a season ago.

Meeting Barcelona is a predicament for virtually all teams, but Arsenal’s case is unusual. Rather than being the normal contrast of styles, this encounter saw Pep Guardiola’s side taking on opponents who would like nothing better than to emulate their methods. The hosts aimed for that same fluent movement, but a flawed version of Barcelona could not be expected to outdo them.

The initial impression was Arsenal could withstand the comparison. Even when the visitors took the lead through David Villa in the 26th minute it came in a spell where they might just as easily have fallen behind.

Neither team was particularly convincing when seeking to check the other. Their heart is not in such work. Such openness made the match a frenetic yet also adroit spectacle. Barcelona could well have had a lovingly crafted opener after quarter of an hour. Andres Iniesta picked out Lionel Messi and laid the ball back to Villa before breaking free on the return. It may only have been the wish to take the goal with a flourish as he dinked a shot beyond the far post.

Arsenal were at least as effective then in unpeeling a back four. Following good work by Theo Walcott, Fabregas lobbed a pass to Van Persie, who rattled a shot that was saved by Valdes. The contest had the uninhibited overtones of last season’s encounter in the quarter-finals when Arsenal rallied to a 2-2 draw. There was a 4-1 defeat to follow at Camp Nou.

It did look here as if Arsene Wenger’s side has improved, with a challenge for the Premier League title adding to the air of progress. Barcelona, all the same, have not paused for breath. They have attained a status where the inability to retain the Champions League trophy is a wrong to be righted. Their first-half goal at the Emirates had purpose to complement the grace.

Even if Arsenal blundered in their effort to spring the offside, Messi sent Villa in for the opener. The hosts had been trying to dictate the terms of the match and so break a Barcelona rhythm that is as natural as a pulse. Wenger’s team did not quite pull off that feat, but they were asking more of themselves than they had last year.

Jack Wilshere was on loan to Bolton at the time of the last encounter with Barcelona, but the 19-year-old still spoke this week of the need to challenge these opponents rather than defer to them. Guardiola’s squad is used to hearing such talk and finding it empty on the pitch itself, but Arsenal tried to hold tight to the faith in themselves that is essential to cope with so elevated a fixture.

There had at least been indications that Barcelona are less sure in defence while Carles Puyol continues to be absent through injury. In that aspect, the visitors could be seen to be prey to a little stress when change is forced upon them. Arsenal had made a comeback last year. The objective here was to repeat that aspect of the past.

The appetite for the task was undiminished, but the game was a little less open. It would be slander to call Barcelona negative, but the craving to tear open Arsenal was not as intense as at the start of the night. There were moment when Guardiola’s men could have been mistaken for conventional visitors to the Emirates.

It was impossible for them to be in full command when a run like Walcott’s unpeeled the right side of the defence in the 55th minute, although his low ball was cleared. There was enough disquiet in Barcelona for Gerard Pique to receive a yellow card, after bringing down Nasri, that will see him banned from the second leg.

There was a conviction to Arsenal and, in consequence, the odd indication of alarm in the visitors. It took 20 minutes or more before Barcelona enjoyed a studied period of possession. Two substitutions reflected managerial outlooks.

Guardiola’s preference was conservative as Seydou Keita took over from Villa, while Wenger pitched on the creative Andrey Arshavin for the holding midfielder Alex Song. The match had turned pensive. That was natural after two sides who had regularly swept around this pitch realised they resemble normal footballers in one respect. They, too, can get very tired and Van Persie’s leveller was a triumph of willpower.

Guardian Services

ARSENAL: Szczesny, Eboue, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song (Arshavin 68), Wilshere, Walcott (Bendtner 77), Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie. Subs Not Used: Almunia, Rosicky, Denilson, Squillaci, Gibbs. Booked: Song, Nasri, van Persie.

BARCELONA: Valdes, Dani Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta (Adriano Correia 89), Pedro, Messi, Villa (Keita 68). Subs Not Used: Pinto, Bojan, Mascherano, Milito, Afellay. Booked: Iniesta, Pique.

Referee: Nicola Rizzoli(Italy).