Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1

Barcelona produced another mesmerising display to see off the challenge of Arsenal and progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Leo Messi scored twice and Xavi Hernandez scored the other as the La Liga champions overcame Sergio Busquets’ own goal to win the tie 4-3.

Arsenal had their own piece of misfortune when referee Massimo Busacca inexplicably sent off Robin Van Persie for a second yellow card moments after Busquets’ miscued header had levelled the score on the night. But in truth anything more than a narrow defeat would have flattered a gunners side that didn’t manage a single attempt on goal all evening.

Van Perise had indeed been a surprise selection by Arsene Wenger, the striker was originally expected to be out of action for a month after injuring a knee 10 days ago. However, the Dutchman was chosen to play the role of desperate lone striker starved of any possession or involvement in the game that most visitors now employ on trips to the Catalan capital. Van Persie’s inclusion wasn’t the only surprise in the Arsenal starting eleven, Thomas Rosicky also given the role on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 ahead of the match winner in the first leg, Andrei Arshavin.

Pep Guardiola went, as expected, with Busquets alongside Eric Abidal in defence with Adriano chosen ahead of Maxwell at left-back. Yet, in the first half Busquets might as well have been playing in his usual midfield anchor role as the home side had no need for two centre-backs so dominant were they in possession and territory.

However, despite utter domination from the hosts, Arsenal’s deep defensive line and five across midfield made it difficult for Barca to create many clear-cut openings. Barcelona’s first efforts on target coming just after the half hour, Adriano firing a shot off the outside of the post and David Villa shooting tamely into the hands of Manuel Almunia - who had replaced the injured Wojciech Szczesny on 20 minutes. Messi should also have had a penalty for a blatant foul by Diaby but somehow the referee standing merely yards away waved play on.

The game then suddenly opened up in what proved to be a crucial five minutes of stoppage time allowed for Szczesny’s injury. Firstly, Van Persie stupidly got a yellow card for slapping Dani Alves in the face. Indeed, the only explanation for his subsequent dismissal can be that the referee felt he had let the Dutch striker off lightly by showing only a yellow card on this occasion.

Messi then fired wastefully into Almunia’s arms with his first opportunity of the match. Two minutes later, however, he made no such mistake with a truly outstanding goal. Cesc Fabregas gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of his own area and after Andres Iniesta demonstrated wonderfully quick feet to dance away from desperate Arsenal challenges and slip the ball through to the Argentine, he took three touches with his majestic left foot to control, flick the ball up over Almunia and then fire into the empty net.

With Barcelona now ahead on away goals they appeared to have all the momentum but within seven minutes of the second-half the tie had been turned on its head again. Sami Nasri did extremely well to win a corner down the left and when his delivery curled into the Barcelona box, Busquets could only divert his header on the stretch into his own net.

Within two minutes the dynamic of the tie changed again when Van Persie, unaware he had been flagged offside, was shown a second yellow card for kicking the ball away. The former Feyenoord man more than justified in furiously remonstrating with the referee that in a crowd of 95,000 people it is rather hard to hear one man’s whistle.

With the shock of the equaliser now worn off, Barca returned to the domination they had enjoyed in the first period.

Villa should have restored the lead twice but on both occasions was denied by the feet of Almunia before more sublime play from Iniesta did create Barcelona’s second. The World Cup winner accelerating past the challenges of Rosicky and Johann Djourou before sliding the ball through for Villa, who with one touch played in Xavi to fire past Almunia.

Barcelona were now rampant and had a third goal within two minutes. Again Xavi was involved as his pass to Pedro saw the Canarian chopped down by Laurent Koscielny. This time Busacca not letting the gunners off the hook as the pointed to the spot. Indeed had Van Persie not already seen red it is almost certain Koscielny would have seen a second yellow for the foul. Messi inevitably converting the spot-kick.

The 2009 Champions League winners then passed up a host of glorious chances to seal the tie. Ibrahim Affelay - who had replaced Villa – firing wide with his first involvement and Alves, who time and again got beyond the Arsenal backline, trying to play in Messi with the goal at his mercy the worst offenders.

And they nearly paid for their profligacy as with two minutes remaining Arsenal passed up a glorious opportunity to win the tie. The visitors best performer Jack Wilshere robbing Adriano and squaring for substitute Nicklas Bendtner, but with only Victor Valdes to beat a combination of a heavy first touch and an excellent saving tackle from Javier Mascherano denied the Dane.

Barcelona played keep ball for the remainder of stoppage time and more than deserve their place in the next round. Once again a combination of just being a little too ‘Barcelona lite’ and not taking their chances came back to haunt Arsenal in what was, as always, a thrilling encounter between Europe’s best two passing sides.

FT: Barcelona 3 (Messi 45 + 3 & 71, Xavi 69) – Arsenal 1 (Busquets (OG) 52)

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