TSL breaks down the Gunners 2-1 victory in the first leg ofthe round of sixteen matchup
In the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen clash between Arsenal and Barcelona, it was the North London side who claimed a comeback victory, despite being heavy underdogs in the match. The Catalan giants took a one goal lead in the first half through a David Villa finish, but an exciting second half, with two Arsenal goals in five minutes and some stellar goalkeeping, clinched the game for the home side.
From the opening whistle, some of the brightest stars for both sides shone a bit dimmer than usual at the Emirates stadium. Messi missed a simple breakaway in the 15th minute, opting to chip the ball over the charging keeper instead of powering it into the back of the old onion bag. And though Samir Nasri was indeed fit to play in the match, he was not particularly useful. Even the nearly perfect passing résumés of Fabregas and Xavi were tarnished by several errant giveaways.
One starlet, however, Jack Wilshere—the 19-year-old Englishman—was blinding with pace, precise passing, and strength while running with the ball. This match—against arguably the three best midfielders in the game—marked the coming-of-age party for this promising and gifted youngster.
While Arsenal’s Alex Song chose to get the game underway with a yellow card and several other careless challenges, it was David Villa, a.k.a. “el guaje” (the kid), who opened the scoring in the 26th minute. It wasn’t the most glamorous of goals, but the Arsenal back four—who had been playing too high and too flat—were dissected by a perfectly weighted pass from Messi that found a charging Villa to slot the ball home through the legs of the Arsenal keeper, Wojciech Szczesny.
For the remainder of the first half, Barcelona seemed entirely content to dominate possession, but they lacked the vitriol required to notch a second goal. In fact, for a three-minute period Barca didn’t give the ball away, and managed to complete nearly 80 passes. The streak, however, eventually ended like many of their forward endeavors—in a weak attempt to get behind the Arsenal back line.
In the first few minutes of the second half, Arsenal looked to have drastically changed the tone of the match; they burst out of the gates with a counter attack that ended in a Robin van Persie shot zooming over the target. The ensuing barrage of attacks from the Gunners was temporarily mollified by solid shot-blocking from Barca center backs Eric Abidal and Gerard Pique, but Pique soon fell victim as he absorbed a yellow card in the 58th minute, signaling his suspension in the second leg.
Shortly after the 60th minute, both coaches made their intentions in the match clear with a pair of telling substitutions. Pep Guardiola inserted the holding midfielder Seydou Keita for the goal-scorer Villa, while Arsene Wenger pulled his own defensive midfielder Alex Song in favor of the grinning Russian assassin/striker, Andrei Arshavin. These substitutions impeded Barcelona’s flow of possession, and Arsenal’s counterattacks grew more potent.
Cheered on by 60,000 rowdy North-Londoners, the home side gained confidence, and in the 78th minute Gael Clichy scooped a lovely ball over Dani Alves to the onrushing van Persie. The flying Dutchman—who played an uncharacteristically consistent game—followed the ball toward the goal line, and just as the Emirates crowd, the TV audience and the Barca keeper Victor Valdés expected the ball to be crossed along the six-yard box, van Persie opted to whip it in past the near post. A stunned Valdés became a spectator as the stadium erupted and van Persie ecstatically celebrated his recently consistent good form.
Barca fans all over the world were grimacing at the thought of tying Arsenal, sometimes referred to as “Barcelona lite.” But crossed arms and furrowed brows soon morphed into crude gestures and cries of anguish as Arshavin struck in the 83rd minute. The substitute got on the end of a brilliant counterattack orchestrated by Samir Nasri. A clinical inside-of-the-foot finish was enough to seal the Catalans’ fate, and despite a few flurried attacks in the last ten minutes, the Arsenal defense held steadfast and keeper Szczesny made a few crucial parries.
Arsenal will be extremely pleased with their 2-1 aggregate lead going into the Mar. 8 second leg at the Nou Camp, but Barcelona will remain confident as well, as a 1-0 or better win will put them through to the quarterfinals. However, without central defender—and stud-of-the-week—Gerard Pique, nerves will be running high at La Masia at the thought of Arsenal grabbing a decisive away goal on Mar. 8. This match was indeed as highly entertaining as forecasted, and the much-anticipated second leg in Catalunya is sure to leave fans breathless.