What an unbelievable night! Rarely does the reality of football match the hype that surrounds it these days, but Wednesday night's encounter between Arsenal and Barcelona was a spectacle of the highest quality and the Gunners produced a victory that will be talked about for years in the red half of North London.
After the facile win over Wolves at the weekend, Arsene Wenger’s team couldn’t have been in better fettle going into this match. The absence of Bacary Sagna excepted, and unlike in this match-up last season, the manager was able to field a full-strength side. Any fears that the Gunners would be blown away by a force-nine Barca hurricane in a repeat of last year's first half were soon allayed as the team made a bright start carving out a couple of good early chances.
Arshavin Sparks Mayhem at The Grove©AFP
However, Barcelona soon found their stride and began to test Arsenal’s resolve. At times their movement was just scary as they effortlessly fizzed one-touch passes all over the pitch. They also have the ability to unlock the tightest of defences with slide-rule killer passes. Although the Spaniards gradually began to dominate possession, they were largely kept at arm’s length by the Gunners. It took one of those eye-of-the-needle passes to break the deadlock as David Villa raced through in the 26th minute to beat Wojciech Szczesny.
Though it was disappointing to be a goal down at half-time, the feeling in the stadium was that Barcelona may be one of the best teams you’ll ever see but Arsenal had not been outclassed in the way they were a year ago. They were still in the match. And so it proved....
In the second half, the Gunners were simply magnificent. They came out and immediately showed the right intent. Barca were still a threat but as the half wore on they gave the impression that they were content to try to sit on their one-goal lead. With an hour gone though, it was still hard to see how the home team could hit back. Try as they might, and as well as they were playing, Arsenal just could not lever their visitors onto the back foot.
It was going to take an extraordinary moment to turn the tide and in the 78th minute Robin Van Persie rose to that challenge beating Valdes at his near post with a thunderbolt shot from an impossible angle. Barcelona fans will probably be questioning their goalkeeper’s positioning but let’s not underestimate the ferocity and accuracy of the Dutchman’s strike.
If the celebrations in the stadiums were wild after Van Persie’s equaliser, they were nothing compared with the scenes following Andrey Arshavin’s winner five minutes later. It was a stunning move capped by a supreme finish by the Russian. In that one moment he confirmed that his early-season problems were behind him and he sent Ashburton Grove into orbit as total pandemonium broke out in the stands. It was breathless stuff.
The Gunners weathered a few scares in the closing moments but never looked like giving up their lead. At the final whistle, the ovation they received was long and well-deserved. The players took their time in returning to the dressing rooms as they savoured every last moment of a very sweet victory with the fans.
Though it was a fantastic team effort, a couple of performances are worthy of particular praise. Laurent Koscielny had by far his best game in an Arsenal shirt. He was quick, aggressive and, most vitally, proactive. Some still question his strength against big bustling strikers but last night he proved himself to be more than adept at dealing with the scintillating trickery of Messi and Co. He showed great concentration and took his tackling to the opposition rather than waiting for them to come to him.
Arsenal’s man of the match though was Jack Wilshere. The little man was just immense throughout. Rather than be intimidated by the occasion, he absolutely thrived on it. Forget all talk of “potential”, this boy is the real deal right now and is only going to get better. Those who have watched him play at youth level feel that the current holding role he has been asked to play somewhat constrains him. He is actually better playing in a more attacking position. However, in the rarefied atmosphere of last night’s highly technical encounter, without deserting his primary responsibilities, he was give a little more scope to give vent to his full repertoire. His composure, touch and accuracy of passing are a joy to watch and he excelled himself.
It may only be “half-time” in the tie and the Gunners still face a mammoth task at the Noucamp in a fortnight, but last night’s result was one to revel in. Whatever happens in the second-leg it was a display that the team can draw on in terms of belief for the remainder of the season.
When Arsenal left Highbury for Ashburton Grove everyone agreed that the new stadium needed to some memories to give it the sort of soul that the old place had in abundance. Last night’s match was definitely one for the memory bank.
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