What a night. Wednesday was probably the most satisfying and compelling night of football Arsenal fans in the Emirates Stadium have witnessed yet. This was an evening to savour for the 50,000+ there to cheer on the young team in red and white.
An astonishing comeback topped off a night of great drama, football of the highest quality and two teams displaying great execution of two differing, although similar, footballing styles.
‘To Dare is to do’ is the translation of the Latin motto on the badge of Arsenal’s close rivals Spurs and it seems Arsene Wenger had taken similar advice to make this round of Champions League games a great success for north London.
Arsene Wenger, before the tie, had continually said that Arsenal would not change the way they play and they would attack as they always do. Few people believed this would be the case when faced with possibly the most accomplished passing side in the last couple of decades.
Arsenal, true to their word, showed great determination and belief in keeping to their attacking instincts and were greatly rewarded come the finale. They dared to thrust forward at every opportunity and to try and pressurise Barcelona into mistakes in much the same way the Catalans’ defensive game is based.
However, it was most definitely not plain sailing and the Gunners were required to ride their luck on a number of occasions – this is a given against this Barcelona team, as Inter showed last year in their semi-final. Lionel Messi was guilty of missing two good chances and had a goal questionably ruled out for offside.
Wojciech Szczesny – in his first ever Champions League appearance – had to make a good block at the feet of Pedro. David Villa’s well taken goal – a combination of a neat through ball by Messi and a poor offside trap – was just reward for Barca, who had dominated the first half with their incredible short passing game.
Maybe it was they subconsciously let up or maybe it was Arsenal’s greater insistence on physically and mentally imposing their game on the visitors. Whatever it was, the second half brought about a marked change in the flow of the game and set the tie up for some great late drama.
Jack Wilshere saw more of the ball in the second and enhanced an already impressive performance by the 19-year-old. It was with great relish to see him, on a few occasions, receive the ball facing his own goal, drop his shoulder, turn past Xavi or Iniesta and take his first touch, all in one movement.
This more positive attitude was key in Arsenal’s fortunes changing as small details like this gave Arsenal the base for faster and more adventurous attacks. The English press are going to lose their minds over the teenager’s performance and it will become increasingly difficult to calm them down if he keeps up this run of form.
Another important factor was the performance of Laurent Koscielny – a man who has gone from playing Ligue 2 football in France to a Champions League last 16 tie in little over a season. The young Frenchman has been in the shadow of his Swiss defensive partner Johan Djourou recently but he gave a remarkable display of alert and physical defending.
When Pedro broke into the area mid-way through the second half Koscielny showed decent pace to catch up and then great strength as he eased the ball away from the young Spaniard, who crumbled under the hint of power suggested to him.
Robin Van Persie’s fortunate goal game at just the right moment – just when it looked as though Barcelona had weathered the second half salvo and were once again ready to take control of the game.
Whether he meant it or not, Van Persie’s near post blast woke up a crowd who had hoped but were now readying themselves for disappointment and it raised his teammates to even greater heights of intensity. Barcelona were rocking and showing signs of flagging under the pressure of Arsenal’s pressure and irresistible energy.
It was fitting that the best move of the game was the one to win it and that the winner completed the redemption of Andrey Arshavin after months of indifferent form. A one-touch passing move – not too dissimilar to the second against Wolves on Saturday – released Nasri down the right and his lay off was perfect for the little Russian to stroke home with aplomb.
A few weeks ago that chance may have travelled quite a bit further and higher but it was a relishing moment to see Arshavin regain his composure and, hopefully, his form for the run-in.
This tie is by no means over – Wenger has admitted Barca are still favourites – but a first ever win over the Spanish champions, as well as the manner of the win, could well be crucial in catapulting Arsenal to success this season. Some fans have often asked Arsenal to show some heart – their response to that claim was yesterday evening and it was slammed home while the fans were bursting out of their chests with pride.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.