01 April 2010

Champions League - Barcelona held after Arsenal fight back

Arsenal fought back from two goals down to restrict holders Barcelona to a barnstorming 2-2 draw in their Champions League quarter-final first leg at the Emirates.


Zlatan Ibrahimovic's brace gave the visitors a deserved two-goal cushion before the hour mark, but the introduction of Theo Walcott gave Arsenal a new dynamism and goals from the England forward and Cesc Fabregas saw the hosts claim parity on the night.
Barcelona take the away-goals advantage into the second leg, although they will be without captain Carles Puyol - who was sent off for a foul on Fabregas that allowed him the chance to score his goal from the penalty spot - and fellow centre-half Gerard Pique, who is also banned after receiving a yellow card for fouling the same player.
Fabregas himself will also miss the return tie at his boyhood club after picking up a third booking in the competition, although it is doubtful he would have been able to play anyway after ending the match limping around the field injured with the Gunners having used all three substitutes.
Indeed, it was a poor night for the Premier League challengers on the fitness front, with William Gallas and Andrei Arshavin both taken off in the first half. The Frenchman's season is thought to be over due to a calf strain, although Arsene Wenger said afterwards he should make the World Cup.
Their replacements, initially wowed by the free-flowing Catalans, more than impressed with their fightback although the injury to Gallas was key as midfielder Alexandre Song - forced to move to centre-half - lost Ibrahimovic for both goals.
But the Gunners showed great resolve to draw level and by the end they were all over the visitors, reduced to 10 men and reliant on calm goalkeeping from Victor Valdes.
Much had been made of Ibrahimovic’s failure to shine in the Champions League, particularly against English opposition, but he answered the doubters with a superb salvo early in the second half, having looked a touch nervous in the opening 45 minutes.
A similar level of hype accompanied the threat of Lionel Messi, but the Argentine - widely regarded as the best player in the world - was anonymous in one of his worst performances for the Blaugrana in recent memory.
Ibrahimovic’s finishes were majestic: the first, 25 seconds into the second half, was a delicate lob from an angle over the onrushing Manuel Almunia, while the second on the hour was blasted into the roof of the net after Arsenal’s defence parted for the Swede.
Pep Guardiola’s side dominated the opening exchanges, racking up 12 efforts and a possession ratio of 70-30 in the first half hour, with Arsenal restricted to a sole shot when Samir Nasri sent a curler just wide of the far post.
The Gunners stayed in it thanks to some poor shooting from Ibrahimovic and an inspired first-half performance from Spanish goalkeeper Almunia.
Almunia, who has expressed an interest in playing for England after nearly six years in the country, made a series of top-class stops including one remarkable triple save to deny Ibrahimovic, Xavi and Messi.
Arsenal largely shackled Messi, and in the latter stages of the half Arsene Wenger’s side grew into the game and were a match for Barca, pressing higher up the pitch and going close on two occasions.
On 35 minutes, excellent wing-play by Nicklas Bendtner culminated in a brilliant cross for Abou Diaby, who beat Pique and Daniel Alves to the header only for the ball to bounce wide.
Two minutes later, the blushes of both Bendtner and Alves were spared by the linesman’s flag when the Brazil full-back missed Nasri’s cross and the Denmark striker first fired against Valdes before putting the rebound on the post.
Fabregas started despite carrying a knee problem and looked off the pace before, just before the break, he picked up a harsh booking for a challenge on Sergio Busquets that ruled him out of an emotional return leg to his hometown club.
Things went from bad to worse for the Gunners as, 23 seconds after the second-half restart, Song allowed Ibrahimovic to get between him and Thomas Vermaelen with Gael Clichy pulled wide, while Almunia was perhaps a little quick to race off his line to head off the danger.
Ibrahimovic, off form in recent months, spotted the half chance and lofted an inch-perfect chip over the onrushing keeper that curved delicately inside the far post.
Arsenal were desperate for a goal and almost levelled when Bendtner powered a header on target after good work from Clichy on the left.
But Valdes was well-placed and Barca nearly got another on the counter as Xavi headed wide from close range after Alves exploited Clichy’s upfield position.
They bagged their second five minutes later when, after Clichy was pulled wide, Vermaelen was dragged away from goal by Messi and Ibrahimovic was given the freedom of the penalty area by the ball-watching Song.
His finish into the roof of the net was as emphatic as his first was deft and the match looked out of sight for the Gunners.
They battled gamely enough though and, soon after coming off the bench, Walcott raced away from Maxwell and rifled a low shot in off Valdes to give Arsenal hope.
Pressing higher up the pitch and right in the tiring visitors’ faces, Arsenal were cutting Barca apart and, after more good wide-play by Walcott, Bendtner cleverly nodded the ball down to Fabregas, who collided with Puyol to earn a penalty.
A bewildered Puyol was given his marching orders, and will miss the return, while fellow Catalan Fabregas rifled the spot-kick into the bottom left with five minutes left, his last act in the tie.
It effectively became 10-a-side when Fabregas pulled up while running back to the centre circle. He was barely mobile in the closing stages.
Arsenal still had the edge, with calm keeping by Valdes keeping them at bay, and a topsy-turvy first leg ended in a compelling draw that - while giving Barca the advantage - is finely balanced for the return a week on Wednesday.
Reda Maher / Eurosport
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