Arsenal scored two stunning goals in the last 12 minutes to secure their first ever victory over Barcelona and give themselves the advantage in another high-class duel between these two European giants.
David Villa gave the 2009 UEFA Champions League winners the initiative midway through the first half and though Lionel Messi missed a couple of gilt-edged opportunities, it seemed it would be enough. However, Robin van Persie put his side level with a shot that wrong-footed Víctor Valdés before substitute Andrey Arshavin side-footed a dramatic winner.
Arsenal had promised a more resolute, mature proposition for Barcelona to deal with compared to the team that had almost lost last season’s quarter-final in the first leg, going 2-0 down before mounting a fightback. The Gunners duly threatened first when Samir Nasri’s free-kick narrowly cleared all his team-mates and carried through to Valdés.
Theo Walcott then overhit his pass to Van Persie following a scintillating run but the speedy winger was soon back on the prowl. This time his pass found Cesc Fàbregas who scooped a lovely ball to give Van Persie a scoring chance at the far post: Valdés did well to parry.
The visitors began to knit their passes together and there was something ominous in the space Daniel Alves was afforded and in Messi’s hunger for the ball.
Messi and Villa combined with a couple of lovely touches which sent the former streaking through with only Wojciech Szczęsny to beat. Credit the goalkeeper, making his European debut, for spreading himself and forcing the world’s supreme talent to steer his chip wide.
A swift Arsenal counter allowed Fabregas to loft the ball out of Valdés’s reach but Éric Abidal was on hand to head away. It only proved the preamble to Barcelona’s opening goal, however, Messi and Villa swapping roles to devastating effect. Messi played the decisive pass to put the Spanish predator in the clear and this time Szczęsny could not keep it out.
Van Persie sliced another opening wide but these were becoming rare opportunities for the Gunners. After the break Arsenal tried all they knew to find their traditional smooth groove. Jack Wilshere fired off a shot at the start of the second half and Van Persie another 20 minutes in but they were no test for a keeper of Valdés’s class.
In their desperation Arsenal became prone to giving the ball away. It nearly proved costly as Andrés Iniesta fed Messi but once more his luck was out as his shot flew into the side-netting. Then the game changed, Van Persie finding a gap between Valdés and his near post following an exquisite chip forward by Gaël Clichy.
The crowd roared their team on for a second and when Nasri broke away five minutes later Arshavin arrived on cue in the penalty area to shoot beyond the goalkeeper. There was late pressure on the home team but they survived and now head for the round of 16 second leg with plenty of confidence, especially as Barcelona will be without Gerard Piqué, suspended after receiving his third yellow card of the campaign tonight.