Defeat of Barca gives Gunners belief
Pessimism is often used to shield a rising sense of hope, but now Arsenal have genuine grounds to believe where before many had predicted nothing but doom.
The Gunners will travel to the Nou Camp in three weeks with a 2-1 lead to defend. That may not be their natural game, but if anything is to be taken from this night, it is that the fighting spirit that looked lost in 45 minutes at Newcastle United has been quickly recovered.
There may have been moments of clinging on, and plenty of last-ditch defending, but two breakaway goals have shown that Barcelona are not impregnable and are beatable. A goal in Spain and Barcelona's patience, displayed as ever here, can be sorely tested. Both Robin Van Persie and Andrei Arshavin's goals were of a quality to remind that Arsenal possess a threat to be recognised, and can trust their attack's ability to damage Barcelona.
Arsenal had spent recent days talking up their chances and seem to have convinced themselves into this battling display. When December's draw was made, there was a sense of destiny even before the two were paired. Indeed, Arsene Wenger had joked after the closing Champions League group game with Partizan about how he would not need to name who he would have liked to have avoided. Hope sprang at the absence of Carles Puyol, whose leadership at the back may well have been missed here. And then there was Barca's weekend draw with Sporting Gijon, whose defending in droves offered a key to surviving wave after wave of twinkle-toed attack. But such an approach would surely be anathema to Arsenal. At times here, and as it will definitely do at the Nou Camp, it became necessity, but there was still no desertion of ideals.
Gunners fans, like Wenger, are protective of their status as the English team that plays the 'best' attacking football, a pretence that can annoy. Thus, defeat to the same opponents last season over two legs came at the cost of much mockery. But lessons have been learned, and Arsenal were able to field a better depth of personnel. Laurent Koscielny was "oustanding" according to his manager where Mikael Silvestre came so unstuck a year ago. Van Persie, missing then, had looked off-form for much of the game but his finish here was proof of a player who trusts his instincts.
This time, those long periods of play when Arsenal were unable to even get on the ball did not look so humiliating. And there were moments of the expected attacking verve. Wenger proclaimed this win, and more specifically the manner of it, as a triumph of his unwavering devotion to a prescribed style of play. "I am very proud for Arsenal Football Club," he said. "Everyone urged us to play differently to our nature, and for more than just pride, it can only increase the belief in our philosophy."
For Arsene the aesthete, the optimum would be for his team to duke it out on their own terms, and not resort to the pragmatism that the likes of Inter Milan and Chelsea have used to frustrate Barcelona. As it was, his team displayed an attacking edge to delight the purist but also a strength of character that meant they were able to recover and regroup when Barca's pitter-patter of tiny passes looked likely to last forever. Jack Wilshere was the embodiment of this. His passing was exemplary in the main, but his pressing and closing down of Barcelona's moving shadows marked him, to coin a favoured Wenger word, as "outstanding''. The teenager displayed an edge of determination that has long been depicted as lacking in Arsenal's ranks and it was Alex Song who looked the junior partner in the centre of midfield.
Barcelona will still look on this night as an opportunity missed, as with 20 minutes to play they had looked to close out their superiority of scoreline and possession by removing goalscorer David Villa for Seydou Keita. They had enjoyed typical dominance of possession, with 66% being a high ratio even for them in the latter stages of the Champions League. It took Xavi 52 minutes to misplace a pass, and he would not do so again, as the holy trinity of him, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta cast their usual spells.
Less starred but no less important in this match was Sergio Busquets, whose one-touch play was hailed last week by Xavi and off whose gawky frame so many of Barcelona's patterns were weaved. The battle between he and Wilshere was the evening's prime one-on-one contest.
Villa's first-half strike was classic Barca, but came as a result of a breakaway after Van Persie had been denied a header on goal by Victor Valdes' claw. Seconds later, the ball was in the net, a Messi pass bissecting Arsenal's defence as Gael Clichy played the striker onside for him to deliver the type of finish that eluded Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather too often for Pep Guardiola's liking last year.
Arsenal's pair of goals were no lesser in quality, and the third of the match, that which hands a narrow but defendable advantage, was the type of incision that is a Barcelona trademark. Arshavin's finish was superbly placed after Cesc Fabregas had played Samir Nasri through on the right, and his ball was drilled back where it came from by the Russian substitute.
Arshavin had come on for Song with 21 minutes to play, an attacking player for a more defensively-minded colleague. But the goals were needed if this tie was to stay alive beyond the realms of fantasy. "I took a gamble, and it worked," Wenger admitted. "We were in the need of scoring two goals.
"We now have a special lift. I believe my players have shown exceptional strength and togetherness." Last year, a 2-2 result was greeted with gloom, and an expectation of an inevitable defeat in Catalunya which duly came. This late surge of goals has served to alter assumption.
"We believe we have a chance," Wenger said of a visit to a team he also described post-match as the best in the world. "We know we can beat them. We didn't know that last year."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergo Busquets - Barcelona dominated possession here, and though Xavi was the playmaker, this game served as a reminder of the qualities of his cohort in the base of midfield. Busquets' awkward build allows him a variety of angles and his one-touch use of the ball was usually the start of a Barca attack, of which there was wave after wave. It is small wonder Javier Mascherano can only look on from the bench.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Sometimes clinging on, sometimes capable of attacking in numbers. Theo Walcott had looked the prime attacking weapon before fading later on. By then, Fabregas and Nasri had grown into the game, both having suffered slow starts. Defensively, there were shaky moments, and Messi could have grabbed two but composure was recovered and embodied by a classy display by Koscielny.
BARCELONA VERDICT: They played as expected, with chances aplenty created and their coach was not unhappy with his team. Messi was the greatest threat, while Villa, apart from his goal, and Pedro were a little off-colour. Gerard Pique's absence from the second leg after a booking offers cause for concern, though Puyol will surely be back by then to man a defence that looked not quite as high quality as the midfield and attack undoubtedly are.
HIGH CAMP NOT NOU CAMP: Arsenal fans were asked to create their own pre-match atmosphere though a belting out of Elvis Presley's The Wonder of You while flags were waved barely registered as an anthem to put fear into Catalan hearts. This was hardly the Ali Sami Yen, it more resembled an oversized Islington karaoke bar.