Thursday, 17 February 2011

Match Report: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

Goals from Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin helped Arsenal come from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates.

In a game that mirrored the first-leg of the tie between these two sides last season, Barcelona dominated the first-half whilst two goals in the final quarter brought Arsenal very much back into the tie.

In contrast to that last encounter at the Emirates though, Arsenal started very much on the front foot. Van Persie with the first chance of the match on six minutes. Cesc Fabregas’ sublime lofted pass finding the Dutchman on the left edge on the area and his first time volley was well parried by Victor Valdes.
Barca’s response was imminent as their midfield began to gain the control many had expected pre-match. And they created their first chance on 15 minutes, Leo Messi played a trademark one-two with David Villa before dinking the ball over Wojciech Szczęsny in the Arsenal goal but agonisingly wide of the post.

The visitors were bossing the game both in territory and in possession but Arsenal were always a threat on the counter-attack. The positioning of Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona midfield, which had been the subject of much pre-match speculation, playing a significant role in this development. Rather than playing very deep between the two centre-backs, as he has done many times this season, Busquets pressed the ball constantly, particularly when Fabregas was in possession. As a result once the Barca midfield was bypassed the Arsenal front three was free to run at the Catalans’ back four.

On one such break the Gunners nearly took the lead. Theo Walcott galloping from the half-way line to release Fabregas and his cross across an open goal was just nicked away from Van Persie by Eric Abidal.

But Arsenal’s high line was now being regularly exposed and it was only a matter of time before the visitors took the lead. When they did it came from more wonderful link-up play between Villa and Messi. This time the Argentine freeing the Spaniard who made no mistake.

Van Persie spurned another opportunity by delaying his shot and skewing wide before Barca ought to have taken a two goal lead. Messi’s diving header after Szczęsny had denied Pedro wrongly ruled out for offside.

The second-half had a far more even and somewhat strange flow to it. Arsenal had much more possession than they enjoyed in the first but without the same level of threat in front of goal – principally because with more possession their counter-attacking opportunities were limited.

Pedro and Messi could have finished the tie when put through on goal but the Canarian dallied and the World Player of the Year uncharacteristically went for goal when he should have squared for Villa.

Barca were beginning to make mistakes all over the field, not retaining possession in the manner we have become accustomed to witnessing. And it wasn’t just on the field they were making mistakes. Pep Guardiola wrongly erring on the side of caution by substituting Villa for Seydou Keita.

In contrast, Arsene Wenger was brave with his changes. Taking off his principal holding midfielder in Alex Song for another forward player in Arshavin.

Van Persie eventually made them pay but in truth the goal owed more to another Barcelona error. The Dutchman’s sweet left-foot volley ghosting in at Valdes’ near post. A fine strike it was but no goalkeeper at this level should be beaten so badly at his near post.

However, if there was an element of fortune about the Gunners’ first goal, their second was absolute quality. After a Messi pass was intercepted on the edge of the Arsenal area; Laurent Koscielny, Nicklas Bendtner and Fabregas combined to send Sami Nasri storming down the right wing. As the Frenchman approached the box he didn’t panic and cooly rolled the ball back to the opposite end of the area for Arshavin to fire home .

Barcelona rallied in the final stages but the closest they came was an angled drive from Dani Alves that Szczęsny parried away.

A rare difficult few days for Barcelona has seen them not win in two consecutive games for the first time in over five months. After their draw in Gijon and Real’s victory at the weekend ‘hay liga’. After a disastrous final 12 minutes this evening ‘hay eliminatoria’.

FT: Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 78, Arshavin 83) – Barcelona 1 (Villa 26)

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