Special night for Arsenal gives Gunners belief for second leg in Barcelona
Late goals secure famous first win over the Catalan giants for Arsene Wenger’s young side
Arsene Wenger admitted it had been a special night for Arsenal as they recorded their first ever victory over Barcelona – but also acknowledged that the Gunners face a massive task to reach the quarter-finals.
Arsenal will take their hard-earned 2-1 lead to the Nou Camp on March 8, knowing that if they can avoid defeat they will knock out the Spanish champions.
But having been beaten 4-1 in the away leg in last season’s quarter-final, the Gunners boss knows it is a big ask to match last night’s achievement again in Catalonia in three weeks’ time.
“This result gives us a chance to go to Barcelona with belief,” said Wenger after the late strikes from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin had turned the game on its head and handed the Spanish giants their first defeat in any competition since early September.
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“We know it will be a very difficult game but we will prepare well. We will be highly focused and we go to win our game.
“We are not favourites. We believe we have a chance. Barcelona are still favourites but what we know from tonight is that we can beat them - which we did not know last year.
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“It is a special lift for my team. Our players have shown exceptional strength and togetherness. This will enforce that.”
“I am proud for Arsenal - everyone urged us to play differently to our nature so it is good. I believe that it can strengthen the belief in our philosophy. The average age of our team is very, very young, 23 years old. It is very promising for the future. Our target is to keep these players together.”
Nobody was more impressive than the 19-year-old Jack Wilshere, who held his own against the exalted World Cup-winning partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and helped drive Arsenal forward in the second half.
“Jack was outstanding. He was not fazed by the occasion in difficult periods, he took the ball and got out of pressure,” said Wenger.
“We were not only strong on the physical side but on the mental side, we kept resilient. We took advantage of one special piece of skill from Van Persie and the goal for the second was after some good build-up play.
“It was a special night. When we suffered, the fans were still very positive.
“We normally have the ball more than the opponent but we knew that Barcelona would have the ball for 60 per cent.
“The problem with their possession is that if you are a fraction late, you can be in trouble. We were prepared mentally to live with that.”
Wenger will be boosted by the return of Bacary Sagna from suspension for the second leg, while Barcelona will be without the central defender Gerard Pique after his booking at the Emirates.
The Catalans’ manager Pep Guardiola will be hopeful of having captain Carles Puyol fit again after a knee injury. If not he will be without both first-choice central defenders.
However, Arsenal supporters will remember only too well that was the same scenario last season after Puyol was sent off at the Emirates, yet Barca still triumphed with ease courtesy of Lionel Messi’s four goals.
History could repeat itself in the Nou Camp – but the Gunners have given themselves a fighting chance. And they have also beaten a team who were supposedly unbeatable.
That is a fine achievement in itself, but Wenger and his players will clearly not be satisfied unless they can finish the job in Spain on March 8.