Choosing a headline is a tricky task. In Arsenal’s case one that reads “Arsenal rally magnificently to level score” or “Cesc heartbreaker: Camp Nou return out for Arsenal’s talisman” or “Almunia’s heroics keep the Gunners in contention” would be equally applicable.
But even the most subjective partisan Arsenal fan would concede that Barca were the superior team in almost every aspect. Statistics rarely lie.
Barcelona enjoyed almost two- thirds of the possession and outshot the Gunners 17-6. The first 20 minutes were a siege on Almunia who was absolutely heroic saving about a half dozen sure goals. And rarely did the ball stray over to the Barca side as the unnerved Gunners forgot even the most rudimentary tenets of ball possession. The sight of Carlos Puyol outsprinting Bendtner brought groans from the most cynical of fans. We were Sunderland to their Arsenal. Minus Rory Delap.
Dani Alves was given the keys to London and thundered up the Emirates stadium unchecked pushing the ball without a Gunner in sight to challenge him. Even to the most casual observer, it was obvious that the Barca attack was emanating down the right flank. Yet Clichy and Samir Nasri were seemingly powerless to stop him.
The first serious intention was Nasri breaking free down the left and curling a ball just beyond the far post to relieve the pressure. But the reprieve proved Pyrrhic as first Arshavin and then Gallas left because of injury. Wenger was forced into making two injury substitutions bringing on Denilson and Emmanuel Eboue. The most serious blow was Fabregas picking up his second card after a clean foul on Busquets which ruled him out of the second leg. The Arsenal captain squatting on his haunches looked devastated. He so fiercely wanted this- a homecoming to his proud Catalan roots.
Arsenal is at its most vulnerable in the initial minutes and the waning minutes of the halves. To escape without a goal scored in the first half was to understate that relief.
Did I mention that we are most vulnerable in the opening minutes?
In the first minute of the second half- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that over rated, costly boondoggle of a striker was allowed to sneak away from the defenders after Pique thumped a long ball and Almunia reverting to type allowed a really cheap goal. I was just about getting my beer when the Barca crowd erupted at the Central Bar. Quite stunning. The second goal was equally cheap as Xavi caught out a dawdling defense again with Ibrahimovic thumping his second goal over hapless Almunia.
Joan Laporta must have been relieved because paying this much money for Ibrahimovic could become an election issue. In between the two goals the much maligned Bendtner whose aerial flicks were much of his contribution so far was able to put in a stinging header straight into the hands of Victor Valdes. But that constituted the extent of the Arsenal threat.
Just when it was all looking very bleak for the Gunners, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott – the man with “no footballing brain”. With his speed he waltzed by Maxwell and though he did make some nowhere passes, for the first time Barca looked discomfited. The breakthrough came three minutes after his introduction when Nasri and Bendtner’s slick combination found Walcott free on the right and the winger slid home a shot under Victor Valdes. The Emirates faithful had reason to believe. And the goal provided the Gunners with alacrity and momentum.
Thierry Henry came onto the field to a very generous reception but fortunately Arsenal’s record goalscorer did little of note. It was left to Cesc to pluck himself out of the shadows of Xavi for one crucial moment as he was brought down by Puyol in the box. The referee had no hesitation. Up stepped Fabregas on adrenaline and a broken leg and thumped the ball past Valdes as the Emirates erupted in relief.
Brave, brave Fabregas almost Derek Redmond like saw out the remaining minutes hobbling in pain on a suspected fractured fibula that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
Three key players missing for the Barca leg is a huge blow but there are two things that should buoy Arsenal. The second leg is not a dead rubber as feared and Barca are without Puyol and Pique. It might mean heavens forbid, the potential for Bendtner doing a number. A 1-0 win and we are through. Do we dare dream?