Barcelona went on a rampage at the Emirates, completely dominating in the first sixty minutes of the match, and notching up two goals, courtesy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, a blinding Walcott goal and a Fabregas penalty restored parity for the home side, paving the way for a mouth-watering encounter at the Camp Nou next week.
The build up to this much awaited encounter involved question marks over Cesc Fabregas’ fitness and Thierry Henry’s inclusion in the Barcelona starting eleven, considering his statements about being reluctant to face his old club. The answers arrived – Arsenal fielded their strongest line-up, which featured Cesc and surprisingly Gallas; Guardiola benched Henry and Yaya Toure, picking Pedro and Busquets to play instead.
Barcelona started the match in emphatic fashion, with Busquets forcing a save from Almunia from a corner in the third minute. Messi forced yet another save from Almunia, and Ibrahimovic skied Dani Alves’ pass over the crossbar from close range. A poor pass by Diaby ended up at Pique’s feet, and the former Manchester United defender delivered a long pass to Ibrahimovic, only for the latter to fire the ball into the side netting.
The Catalan outfit exploited all the gaps in the opponent’s half, bursting into the penalty box and unleashing a flurry of shots towards the Arsenal goal, but Almunia showed amazing reflexes to stop three goal-bound shots. The Gunners were clearly unsettled by the intricate passing and clever play of their superior Spanish counterparts, who relentlessly threatened the Arsenal defense.
Soon, the home side began to find their feet, managing to wrest the ball on some occasions. Nasri found space on the left, and fired a curling right footed shot, which missed the far post by inches. But Barcelona continued to hold the edge, with Dani Alves given too much freedom on the right to surge forward and deliver dangerous crosses. Unfortunately for the visitors, Ibrahimovic was rather wasteful in front of the goal.
Arsenal managed to show some semblance of normalcy after the half hour mark. A Bendtner cross from the right was headed wide off the post by Diaby; a cross from Nasri on the left found an unmarked Bendtner, who shot into the onrushing Valdes and slotted the rebound against the goal post, but he was adjudged to have been off-side. Worryingly for Arsenal, Gallas suffered a recurrence of his calf injury, and was replaced by Denilson, with Song occupying the center back position.
At half time, the Gunners were fortunate not to concede a goal. But, Fabregas was harshly booked for a sliding challenge on Busquets, which means he will miss the next leg at Camp Nou. Arshavin had earlier picked up a knock, and was replaced by Eboue just before the half-hour mark.
Less than twenty seconds into the second half, the Blaugrana drew first blood. Ibrahimovic latched onto a long pass from Xavi on the right of the box. He spotted Almunia leaving his goal totally exposed, and sent a precise lob over the latter into the goal, sending the Emirates crowd into stunned silence.
Arsenal were stirred into action by the goal, and a Clichy cross was headed straight into the hands of Valdes by Bendtner. However, the Catalans once again stamped their authority. A clever aerial pass by Xavi evaded the Arsenal defense, and Ibrahimovic’s shot whizzed past Almunia into the upper net to give the visitors an unassailable two-goal lead.
Despite the deflating score line, Arsenal refused to give up without a fight. Wenger made a tactical change, substituting Sagna for Walcott. This change bore fruit a few minutes later, as Bendtner sent a through ball into the opposition box, and Walcott’s shot deflected off Valdes’ outstretched hand into the back of the net.
Now the tide had turned, and Barcelona were forced into retreat. Pique made a challenge on Fabregas just outside the box, earning him a yellow card, which also ruled him out of the next leg. However, the Arsenal ace could only send the resultant free kick over the bar. The Gunners played with renewed vigor, as Eboue and Walcott combined on the right, looking to send crosses and passes into the danger area.
With seven minutes to go, Fabregas was adjudged to have been brought down by Puyol in the box; the referee pointed to the spot, and also gave the Barcelona captain his marching orders. The Arsenal talisman sent Valdes the wrong way from the spot, to bring up his side’s dramatic equalizer. After taking the penalty, Fabregas appeared to have sustained an injury, hobbling off towards the half line. Considering the nature of the injury, he could be out for a while.
Barcelona were running out of steam, as Arsenal pressed forward in search of a lead. However, they managed to withstand the Gunner onslaught, till the final whistle.
The visitors were clearly the better team on the field, but they will be concerned about the manner in which they let Arsenal get back into the game. However, with two away goals in the bag, the Spanish giants are favourites to progress to the semi finals, when the two teams lock horns at the Camp Nou next weekend.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (FC Barcelona)
The Swedish striker made amends for his poor show in the first half, scoring a brace in the space of thirteen minutes to give Barcelona an away goal cushion.
TheHardTackle’s REFEREE REPORT CARD
Name : Massimo Busacca
Grade : C (Average)
The referee did not unnecessarily hamper with the flow of play, and made correct decisions for fouls committed by both sides. However, the red card for Puyol was totally undeserved, and the penalty was 50-50.
ARSENAL 2-2 FC BARCELONA
Venue: The Emirates, London
Arsenal Line-up: Almunia, Gallas(Denilson 45’), Vermaelen, Sagna(Walcott 67’), Clichy, Song, Diaby, Fabregas, Nasri, Arshavin(Eboue 27’), Bendtner
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Cautions: Arshavin, Fabregas, Song, Diaby, Eboue
Scorers: Walcott(69’), Fabregas(85’ penalty)
Barcelona Line-up: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Keita, Xavi, Busquets, Messi(Militio 87’), Ibrahimovic(Henry 77’), Pedro
Manager: Josep Guardiola
Sent-off: Carles Puyol