The clash of two irresistible forces did not fail to disappoint as the Catalan giants brought their flair and panache to the Emirates on Wednesday evening. But unlike many in Europe, Arsene Wenger vowed to fight fire with fire and promised to take Barca on on their own terms and not stifle their creative geniuses Messi, Xabi and Villa. It was something which looked like a rash promise at the end of the first half as Barcelona dominated the game – but by the end of 90 sensational minutes we were all left begging for more.
The stark truth is that Barcelona should have been out of sight at the interval thanks to a goal from David Villa and an effort from Messi which was wrongly ruled out for offside. A lot has been made of the Argentinian's struggles in England – he has not scored a goal in this country yet – but he should have broken his duck when he was adjudged offside despite being behind the ball when he was played in by Villa. Arsenal was indebted to kid keeper Wojciech Szczesny for a number of saves from Messi and Pedro. Arsenal were left clinging on to half chances but not playing badly – its just Barcelona were playing better.
But just after 8.45pm, referee Nicola Razzoli signalled the start of a second half which will be talked about for years to come. Like two prized fighters, these two giants of European football sized each other up with gentle jabs before Robin Van Persie delivered a knockdown in the 78th minute. There seemed no danger as he was played in close to the byline. What followed was majestic as RVP slammed a low shot inside the near post to embarrass Victor Valdes and give Arsenal a glimmer of hope in the Champions League version of El Classico.
But Barcelona hauled themselves off the canvas as pushed Arsenal back into a corner until a moment of magic in the 83rd minute which undid the Catalans and delivered one of the finest goals you will see at any football ground this year. Son of Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas caressed the ball into the path of Samir Nasri who hared down the right wing and teased the ball into the centre where it was met by Andrey Arshavin who put months of frustration and bad form into his right foot and smashed it home to give the Gunners a crucial advantage going into the second leg on March 8.
Only halfway there
The result doesn't make Arsenal kings of Europe and does not mean Gunners fans can book their quarter final tickets, it's simply half-time in a pulsating tie. What we learned is that the Wenger boys are now men and are not afraid to stand up and be counted – just as Chelsea was an important test which was passed with flying colours, now the Frenchman can point to this result as evidence of his side's continued development. The performance of Koscielny, Arshavin and especially Jack Wilshire shows that obvious talent is now being joined by steel and determination.
But anyone who follows world football knows Barcelona are deadly on any day of the week, a 1-0 win would hand them victory in the tie after all. Arsenal need to be careful that the elation of victory does not become over-confidence – remember last year when Messi wrecked havoc in a 4-1 demolition. And that's the thing, Arsenal need to think about their second leg, Pep Guardiola can simply say to his team 'more of the same lads'. They just need to take their chances because there can be no doubt Arsenal emerged on top last night because they took their chances clinically while for once the illustrious Catalan front line failed to fire.
Man of the match
Robin Van Persie staked a claim for man of the match once again, the Dutchman is red hot at the moment and a huge asset to the Gunners in their quest to land the Fab Four trophies. The reaction of Wilshire, Szczesny and RVP on Twitter suggests they were over-whelmed by the support from the Emirates faithful, avoid defeat in three weeks time and roar of adulation will only get louder.
Arsene Wenger said: “It was a special night between two special teams. The tie is still open.” - He wasn't wrong, all Gunners fans will be praying he lives up to the banner which simply reads 'Arsene Knows'.