Mission impossible? Not this time, Arsenal have proved they can beat Barcelona
First-leg victory gives Gunners hope in Nou Camp
THE real battle may be still to come against Barcelona but Arsenal head into the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie at the Nou Camp having finally beaten their own demons.
Such was the monumental effort of will it took to come back from David Villa’s seemingly inevitable opener for the La Liga champions in the first leg at the Emirates, Arsenal now head to Spain knowing Barca are beatable.
Nobody, not manager, players, pundits or fans would dare suggest it is ‘job done’ for the Gunners – or even half-done for that matter – but the confidence Arsenal will have gained from their first-leg victory sends them into the second game as Barcelona’s equals, – in their own minds at least.
It is a very different story from last year, a quarter-final which saw Arsenal escape with a 2-2 draw from the first leg, before being run from pillar to post by inspired four-goal hero Lionel Messi in the second.
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Villa’s away goal ensures the Spaniards are still favourites to progress to the last eight – but this time it is the Gunners who head into the second leg on the front foot.
This time it is Barcelona who know they must score.
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“We know it will be a very difficult game but we will prepare well,” said Arsene Wenger. “We will be highly focused and we go to win our game.
“We are not favourites, but we believe we have a chance. Barcelona are still favourites and we know that we can beat them, which we did not know last year.”
For the entire first half and much of the second at the Emirates this tie looked to be following a painfully familiar script, with Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi dazzling the hosts with a tapestry of mesmerising passing, just as they did last season.
But when Arsenal’s midfield, led by the immaculate Jack Wilshere, again producing a performance of someone far beyond his years, began denying the visitors the time and space on the ball, playing ‘in the faces’ of the visitors, Arsenal sensed a recovery.
The goals that followed, from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin, proved not only that Barcelona were beatable, but that Arsenal were the ones capable of beating them.
Even without the presence of Van Persie in Catalonia, Arsenal will feel that with Cesc Fabregas and Wilshere in midfield, they have a chance.
“Last year helped us,” admitted Wilshere. “We knew we had to push them harder. Last year they started off well in the first half and we came back into it [and] this time we got the win.
“We know they are a great team, they can keep the ball and, for 20 minutes in the first half [of the first leg], we were chasing them. We knew we had to keep our shape and hit them on the counter-attack and press them hard in the second half.
“There is still a job to do at the Nou Camp, we have to get a goal early and let them come at us again.”
That may prove a risky strategy for Arsenal; for all the hysteria of the first-leg win, the Catalans’ away goal could yet still prove pivotal.
Indeed, a 1-0 scoreline in Barca’s favour would still be enough to render Arsenal’s Emirates heroics immaterial, and Gunners fans need only cast their minds back 10 years to April 2001 to remind themselves just how cruel the away goal rule can be.
Back then, goals from Thierry Henry and Ray Parlour saw Arsenal come from behind against Valencia at Highbury to take a 2-1 lead into their quarter-final second leg at the Mestalla.
Wenger’s side were favourites to book a semi-final spot, and were largely comfortable during the return match – before a solitary John Carew goal 16 minutes from time proved enough to take Valencia through on away goals.
Arsenal’s first-leg victory was arguably their greatest Champions League win on home soil. They must follow it with their best away performance in recent history.
It is a daunting task, but Arsenal now know that nothing is impossible.