LONDON ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Robin van Persie of Arsenal celebrates Arsenal's first goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Arsenal and Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on February 16 2011 in London England.
Arsenal took the first leg of their Champions League tie against FC Barcelona by a final score of 2-1 thanks to two second-half goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin. It was a match where both sides had spells of control, and both sides missed a number of chances to score more.
The match started out as predicted, Barcelona pressing hard when out of possession, and Arsenal compressing space and trying to mark Lionel Messi. The first chances went to the home side, Theo Walcott nearly playing van Persie through, and then, after some terrific work from man of the match Jack Wilshere, the Dutchman nearly scored. Alex Song was then booked for a challenge on Messi as the latter looked to break into Arsenal's penalty area; the Cameroonian would skirt the edges of a sending off for the next hour or so.
Arsenal were pressing well, but Barcelona slowly started to create, and fifteen minutes in, they should've been up 1-0. Villa played in Messi, who sprung the offside trap and broke in on Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole came out to cut off angles, Messi chipped over him, and the ball spun just wide of the far post.
From then on, the Catalans took control. Arsenal looked to break on the counter, but Barca were stringing tens of passes together, and on 27 minutes, Arsenal finally made a mistake. Messi relased the ball as Villa broke through Arsenal's line, and Gael Clichy was two steps behind his central partners, playing Villa onside, and the Spaniard did the rest, slotting home the finish underneath Szczesny. For all of Arsenal's hard work pressing in the first twenty minutes, they were now looking up the side of a mountain and in danger of being passed to death.
As Barca looked for a second, Laurent Koscielny and his fellow defenders would not be moved. He won the ball and fed Fabregas upfield, whose shot was blocked. Emmanuel Eboué made a mistake and nearly let Barca through again, but Messi was offside. Johan Djourou gave the ball away, but Koscielny came across to mop up behind. Half time arrived just after Robin van Persie headed well over the bar.
The Gunners came out for the second half looking much as they had at the start of the first, the back line compressing space and pushing up high, but also controlling Barca's passing through the middle and forcing them out wide. Wilshere continued to win the ball under pressure and calmly find space with a pass or a turn, and Valdes saved an early effort from him. Xavi screwed a volley well wide before Arsenal started to exert a little more pressure on the offensive end, winning a succession of corners in the 58th minute that led to nothing. Cesc Fabregas took a weak free kick that Valdes saved easily, van Persie had another shot saved, and Djourou blocked a Messi effort at the other end.
Both managers then made changes; Pep Guardiola brought on Seydou Keita for David Villa, and Wenger, in what he termed after the match as "a gamble", made his first offensive substitution, bringing on Arshavin for Song. The game was losing momentum, Barcelona passing the ball around, Arsenal looking a little winded, Pat Rice screaming from the touchline as the defense sagged off a bit. Wenger wasn't done, though. Ten minutes after bringing on Arshavin, he brought on Nicklas Bendtner for Theo Walcott, against whom Barcelona had done mostly good work all evening.
Wilshere had a shot blocked by Eric Abidal, Arsenal won a corner, and Valdes claimed it. 78 minutes were gone, and it looked bleak.
Then a goal came from nowhere.
Clichy and Arshavin looked to combine on the left, Clichy eventually finding space for Robin van Persie with his right foot. The Dutchman looked to whip in a cross for the crashing Bendtner, but instead lashed a low hard effort in past Valdes, who had snuck off his line, at the near post. The Emirates practically lifted off the ground; Valdes looked stunned. Barcelona were still dangerous, but the crowd were back into the match.
If they were back in it then, three minutes later, they generated steam heat.
Koscielny, again, stopped a Barca pattern dead in its tracks on the edge of the 18, and fed Bendtner on the right. The Dane squeezed a ball to Wilshere, who one-touched it to Fabregas. The Captain looked up and made a lovely pass through to a streaking Nasri. Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal, and Maxwell all converged on the Frenchman, who got to the byline, assessed the action, saw Arshavin cutting in from outside the 18 on the left, and fed him. Arshavin didn't disappoint, didn't sky the ball over, didn't mishit it, but used Pique and Maxwell as a screen, lashing a first-time shot low and very hard around them and past the wrong-footed Valdes.
It was an exceptional hit from a man who's come under a lot of fire for his subpar form lately, and the second important goal he's struck in two weeks. The Emirates and supporters everywhere lost their collective minds. Barcelona were still dangerous, but still mainly finding their only joy via Dani Alves on the right. Wojciech Szczesny came up huge at the end with a save on Alves, and as Andrei Arshavin failed to make one last counter count, the referee called time on what is surely one of the great wins in Arsenal's history.
Nou Camp looms large in three weeks' time, but before that, there's FA Cup action at Leyton Orient and the small business of a Carling Cup final...