Champions League – Arsenal claim famous win over Barcelona
Numerous chances were spurned in a pulsating first half, but it was the combination of Lionel Messi and Villa which saw the Spaniard clinch the game’s only goal with a finish of outstanding conviction.
Arsenal refused to be dictated in the second half, and the hosts’ inspired comeback saw Robin Van Persie level with a stunning volley from an acute angle, before substitute Andrei Arshavin slammed in a second five minutes later.
It was the North London club’s first ever victory over the Catalan giants, and it sees Arsene Wenger‘s side assume the ascendancy in the tie ahead of the second leg at the Nou Camp.
Samir Nasri assumed a starting berth in the Arsenal midfield after passing a late fitness test and Emmanuel Eboue slotted in at right back to replace the suspended Bacary Sagna, while the much vaunted Messi formed a three-pronged attack with David Villa and Pedro for the visitors.
Wenger spent the week determined to assure all and sundry that his side had bridged the gulf in class which saw the Premier League club vanquished 6-3 on aggregate by Pep Guardiola’s trailblazers last year, and the hosts began the match confidently, holding their own both in terms of possession and purpose.
Arsenal carved out the first chance of the game as Theo Walcott hurtled down the left, but his incisive run was followed by a final ball towards Robin van Persie which drifted awry while Nasri implored him to look to his left.
A minute later, Victor Valdes was called into action after another rasping run from Walcott culminated in Cesc Fabregas dinking an exquisite through ball to Van Persie, whose first time shot was parried away by the Barcelona keeper.
The hosts would be made to pay for such profligacy in the final third.
Messi has scored 13 goals in his last 11 Champions League starts including four in one game against Arsenal, but he was unable to capitalise on a glorious opportunity to part emulate his display last season as he raced clear on goal in the 15th minute, only to dink his shot wide of both Wojciech Szczesny and the far post. A collective and audible sigh of relief went around the Emirates.
But then Villa made his mark: Messi hared down the right, before threading an exquisitely-weighted delivery through for Villa, who kept his composure to slide the ball beyond Szczesny.
Messi might have doubled his side’s lead in the 38th minute as he rounded off a sweeping counter-attack with a close-range header into an empty net, only for the offside flag to intervene. Replays suggest the Argentine may have had good reason to feel aggrieved.
Neither manager deemed it necessary to make a change at the break, and Arsenal came roaring out of the blocks in a similarly breathless exchange at the start of the second half, but the hosts were unable to muster a clear-cut opportunity.
The hosts enjoyed a period of sustained possession on the hour mark, with the best chance seeing Gerard Pique agonisingly outstrip Van Persie in meeting Fabregas’s teasing delivery to the near post from close range.
Messi then squandered another goalscoring opportunity which he would normally have dispatched as he latched on to a deft through ball from Iniesta, only to flick the ball wide of the near post with Szczesny going to ground as Arsenal had another major reprieve.
Wenger and Guardiola each made substitutions in the 68th minute, with intentions in stark contrast as Seydou Keita replaced the goalscorer Villa, while the expansive Arshavin was swiftly followed on to the field by Nicklas Bendtner.
But then the match was turned on its head in the space of five scintillating minutes: Clichy marauded down the left and found Van Persie with a slick through ball down the left, and the Dutchman found the back of the net with a rasping strike from an improbable angle to level.
Arshavin’s introduction proved an inspired one from Wenger, who was left to punch the air with jubilation as the Russian rounded off another brilliant counter-attack with an emphatic finish from Nasri’s pacey run and cut-back.
Arsenal preserved their slender lead in a riveting final seven minutes, and the Premier League side clung on to hold the advantage ahead of the second leg at the Nou Camp on March 8.