Barça reached the quarter finals of the Champions League with an excellent performance over an Arsenal side that proved tough to break through. We had to wait until injury time in the first half to see Messi open the scoring, and when Sergio Busquets headed into his own net early in the second half we had a difficult task ahead but this was assisted by the stupidity of Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie who got himself sent off for two pointless yellow card offences. Xavi put the tie level at 3-3 in the 69th minute, and with Arsenal looking on the back foot Messi scored the winner from the penalty spot after Pedro was brought down by Koscielny. Arsenal didn’t have a shot all night but they gave us a scare in the 87th minute when Adriano gave the ball away but fortunately when the ball came in to Bendtner his first touch was poor and Mascherano was allowed the chance to intercept brilliantly. It was a moment that showed that despite our clear dominance in play Arsenal could have nicked it in the end and we would only have had ourselves to blame. As it was we can look back on a fine performance and a deserved victory.
The only surprise in Pep Guardiola’s line-up was the inclusion of Adriano instead of Maxwell at left back though this made very little difference to how we played as we stuck very much to our normal 4-3-3 formation with the unusual pairing of Busquets and Abidal in central defence. Arsenal came out biting but Barça had possession from the start though we had problems early on finding time to do anything dangerous with the ball. The Arsenal defence was playing very high which meant there was very little space in the middle though it always looked likely that sooner or later we would find the pass through for Messi or Villa to get a run on goal. The first time came in the 13th minute but Koscielny showed great pace to get across and deny Messi. We needed to be very precise in our play as Arsenal were giving very little space but on one decent looking attack Villa failed to control Alves’s pass into a dangerous position.
Then in the 16th minute the Arsenal goalkeeper Szczesny injured a thumb stopping an innocent long shot from Alves and Manuel Almunia had to come on in his place to my great relief as I was worried that having to write the impossible name Szczesny too often would drive me crazy. With the space between the two high defences being so reduced there were bound to be some sparks as the tackles went in, Alves gave both Fabregas and Nasri something to remember him by, and Van Persie showed the first signs of losing his cool with a foul on Messi after 27 minutes. Messi reacted by immediately getting more involved, first combining with Xavi in an attack where the ball broke to Pedro for the best chance so far but Pedro’s left foot curler went well wide. Then Messi dribbled past three in the area only to be denied but the long stretched leg of Djorou. This was immediately followed by a pretty strong shout for a penalty after Messi appeared to be fouled by Koscielny but the ref who was only a couple of metres away waved play on. We were piling on the pressure now and Villa broke through though Djorou did enough to stay with him and Villa couldn’t get power on his shot, then Adriano overlapped Villa on the left before firing a cross/shot against the outside of the near post.
Just before half time Mascherano and Wilshire went for the same ball and the Arsenal man stayed down injured, this was followed by some pushing and shoving with Van Persie involved with Abidal and Busquets, it wasn’t easy to see everything that happened but Abidal gave Van Persie a push in the throat that didn’t please him too much. A couple of minutes later when play resumed Van Persie was immediately involved in a deliberate attempt to catch Dani Alves in the face, the fact that he only clipped Alves doesn’t take away the fact that it was deliberate and Van Persie was lucky to only get a yellow card. I was worried that the stoppages would break our stride but it was Arsenal who lost concentration. First Iniesta broke away before finding Messi who did what he does best by cutting inside two challenges but his final shot was not so brilliant and Almunia saved easily. Our insistence meant that we were often winning back the ball in Arsenal’s half and just before half time Iniesta stole the ball 30 yards out and with a quick dribble and pass found Messi who managed to flick the ball over Almunia’s flapping lunge before volleying past Djorou on the line.
It was a fine goal to end a fascinating first half battle but Arsenal knew they would have to change something in the second half as they had not come close to Victor Valdes’s goal at all. In the first half Nasri was playing virtually at left back in what often looked like a 5-3-2 formation, early in the second half, however, he managed one long run up the left wing and despite the attention of thre of our players he succeeded in winning a corner. When the cross came in there seemed to be little danger but Busquets misread the flight of the ball and was horrified to see his header fly past Valdés. Villa had an immediate chance to put us back in front on the night but Almunia saved again. This was soon followed by Van Persie’s sending off. Of course he will be upset that he could receive a yellow card just for shooting after the whistle had blown, but I don’t believe he didn’t hear the whistle and he only has himself to blame for trying to waste time. It may have been a little harsh but he could easily have gone in the first half.
With Arsenal down to ten men we had them completely pinned back. Villa was denied twice more by Almunia and Alves shot over after a great build up. Arsenal couldn’t hold on, in the 69th minute Iniesta went on another run before slipping the ball in to Villa who gave the faintest of touches on to Xavi who slipped the ball under Almunia to make it 2-1 on the night and all square overall. However, we were on a roll now and Xavi found another pass into Pedro who was brought down by Koscielny and this time the ref had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Messi left Almunia standing from 12 yards to make it 4-3 overall.
Messi and Afellay had chances to score again and Alves twice failed to connect with Messi for the final pass. It looked as if we could score the fourth at any time but in the 87th minute Adriano gave the ball away in our own half, Arsenal swept forward with the ball coming into Bendtner but we were lucky that the substitute had a poor first touch and Mascherano slid in to make a crucial tackle. It gave us a few nervy minutes at the end but the players kept their composure and continued to frustrate Arsenal with some brilliant possession football, Arsenal tried to get forward but Victor Valdés was not troubled again.
This was a very important victory and we can now begin to talk in fairness about the possibilities of another treble. Arsenal were better than last season but I think that they will admit that we were better over the two legs, though I’m sure they will want to dispute Van Persie’s sending off. We had some doubts before the game and being without both Puyol and Piqué was worrying. However, we now know why Pep Guardiola did not sign another central defender, he already knew the potential of Busquets to play at centre back and he was one of the few who had confidence in playing Abidal there. In the end the signing of Mascherano has been perfect, it allows Busquets to be used in other positions and Mascherano had an excellent game tonight in midfield. A lot of us thought the squad looked short but with the 14 who played tonight plus Pinto, Piqué and Puyol we have the group that has Guardiola’s confidence. Milito seems to be on his way out and Bojan is now definitely a place below Afellay in the pecking order.
Barça: Valdes 6.5; Alves 7, Busquets 6, Abidal 8, Adriano 6.5 (Maxwell m91,–); Xavi 8, Mascherano 8 (Keita m88,–), Iniesta 8; Pedro 7, Messi 8.5, Villa 6.5 (Afellay m82 6.5).
Arsenal: Szczesny (Almunia m19), Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Wilshere, Diaby, Rosicky (Arshavin m73), Fabregas (Bendtner m78), Nasri, Van Persie.
Goals: m45+3 Messi 1-0, m52 Busquets o.g. 1-1, m69 Xavi 2-1, m71 Messi (pen) 3-1
Yellow cards: m15 Koscielny, m29 Sagna, m38 Wilshire. m45 Van Persie, m56 Van Persie (=red).
Referee: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland)