The Barcelona-Arsenal clash at the Nou Camp in Catalunya lived up to its hype—and it’s hype was as large as any UEFA Champions League match of such titanic proportions. With Arsenal winning the first leg 2-1 in London, Barcelona needed to secure a win of 1-0 or better to move through to the semifinals. The Champions League anthem before the game sent ripples of excitement through red-blooded Arsenal fans and die-hard Barca supporters alike.
But from the opening whistle of the match, the 98,000 fans at the Nou Camp witnessed a slightly disappointing, slightly dull, and mostly awkward sort of game, where neither team had the audacity to draw first blood. Barca was, as has oft been the case this season, content to pass the ball around their midfield with few threatening attacks, while Arsenal bunkered all 11 men behind the ball.
Barcelona’s two center backs, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, were both out of commission—not, as was generally believed, because they were at the Spanish male-model-of-the-year competition, but because of injury and suspension, respectively. One of Arsenal’s young phenomena, Theo Walcott, was also out with an injury, while the star of the last leg, Robin van Persie, was deemed fit just a few days earlier.
The first major action of the game came on a Barcelona free kick that Brazilian defender Dani Alves pelted towards the net. While Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny was up to the task of holding the ball, it came at the cost of one of his fingers, which suffered a ruptured tendon on the play. Arsenal fans groaned as backup keeper Manuel Almunia, a Spanish doppelganger for “Haywire” from Prison Break known for his butterfingers and all-around buffoonery, came in to replace the injured Szcesny. In spite of his reputation, Almunia would proved his mettle to Arsenal fans.
A series of dramatic semi-injuries and arguable fouls characterized the flow of the game in the first half, epitomized by a yellow card for the lanky Dutchman, Robin van Persie. Moments before, a small tussle had broken out between van Persie and Barca defender Eric Abidal, and on the ensuing play, the Holland striker chose to lamely push Alves’ face and received a fair caution from the referee. This card would become hugely important in the second half.
The game seemed like it was headed scoreless into the break, but a sloppy back-heel pass from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas went astray at the top of his own penalty box, allowing Andres Iniesta to leap onto the loose ball and feed Messi through with a delicately threaded ball into the six-yard box. Instead of brutishly smashing the ball home, the ever-graceful Messi lofted the ball to himself over the charging keeper Almunia and volleyed it home for a 1-0 Barca lead at half time.
As this lead would have pushed Barcelona through to the semifinals, Arsenal was eager to equalize, and they did so in the 57th minute, though the goal was not glorious. An Arsenal corner kick that was actually nowhere near a yellow-shirted player found instead the head of converted central midfielder Sergio Busquets for an embarrassing own-goal.
With the Gunners level, the game turned into a nail-biting affair. Barcelona fans knew that their team now had to score two more goals to proceed to the next round. It seemed for a dramatic ten-minute barrage of Barcelona attacks that steel was indeed forged in fire, and that Manuel Almunia would emerge as the steely hero of the night. He deftly parried away three shots from in-form David Villa and a brace of attempts from Messi.
But just as Almunia was shocking the world with beautiful kick-save after beautiful kick-save, the North London side’s fortunes turned as Robin van Persie was thrown out of the game on a highly contentious play. He was called offside, appeared not to hear the whistle, so shot the ball anyway and was given a second yellow card for this “unsporting behavior.”
Ten-man Arsenal battled on, but it was only a matter of minutes before Xavi slipped through the defense, Iniesta again the provider of a sublime ball that David Villa merely guided on to Xavi, who slipped the ball past the charging Almunia. And with the wind finally in their sails, Barcelona’s Pedro tacked and jived into the six-yard box just a minute later where he was brought down by Laurent Koscielny.
The referee put on a dismal performance on the night, but this call was an easy one to make. Messi coolly converted the penalty, and Barca had the 3-1 lead they needed to move on the next round. Arsenal had just one chance to steal the game, but Javier Mascherano—who is, in the words of one fan, “a life-time insurance policy for a career-ending tackle”—came through with a clutch slide-tackle to deny Nicklas Bendtner the goal in stoppage time.
In the end, the match left the fans wanting more. Arsenal fans wished they had mustered at least one more attempt on goal, and Barcelona fans wished they could have enjoyed a more flowing game of tactical soccer, untainted by the referee’s harsh sending off of van Persie. Arsenal head home to London still without hope for European silverware, and Barcelona await the draw for the next round.