Gunners left to admire Barca's brilliance
The advent of the 2-2 thrashing arrived on an extraordinary night of Champions League football at Emirates Stadium.
After 69 pulsating minutes of football so dominated by Barcelona that you were left to wonder whether Arsenal were, in fact, enjoying their role as a punch bag for the European champions, damage limitation appeared to be the limit of their ambition.
Outclassed from the off by a team who turned on a display that left all present in no doubt that we were witnessing something very special, Arsenal looked like minnows from a lower league in comparison as the brilliant Xavi orchestrated a side whose passing and movement was a sight to behold.
However, somehow, Arsenal escaped with a 2-2 draw as the late introduction of Theo Walcott turned the course of a tie that appeared over after Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two away goals for a Barca side that could and should have taken their goal tally into double figures on a chilled north London evening.
Before the "In Arsene We Trust" brigade rush to point out their side missed a host of presentable chances in a tie that will live long in the memory, let's not try to disguise the reality that this was a mismatch of seismic proportions and the statistics of the game confirmed as much.
Barca's 22 shots compared to Arsenal's meagre six should have meant they were in a position to treat the second leg as little more than a practice match and, to his credit, Wenger didn't try to provide an alternative picture as he met the press after the greatest escape of his managerial career.
"We are lucky to escape with the draw, I cannot deny that," conceded the Arsenal boss. "We gave them too much room to play their football and we have to say Barcelona are an exceptional side. The annoyance for me is we gave them two cheap goals, but you have to say we were lucky to be still in the tie before those goals arrived.
"It's not easy to accept it when your team are outplayed, but it certainly feels less upsetting than when we are kicked by teams and drop points in the Premier League. What we saw from Barcelona was art and it added up to a great night for football in many ways. I still feel we have a chance in the second leg, but clearly they are a fantastic team."
Wenger's honest words were delivered with a tone that suggested he fears the worst in the return leg, but this was not a night to start dismantling the ethics he has stood by for so long.
Instead, it was a night to toast a Barcelona side who played the sort of football Arsenal would dearly love to produce and their coach Pep Guardiola was oozing with delight, even after his side conceded two late goals. "I am proud of my team and a performance that was the best we have produced away from home in the Champions League," he said.
"Even last season when we won every trophy, we never played as well as this away from the Nou Camp. We kept the ball so well, didn't give Arsenal a chance to play and all that was lacking was the focus at the end as the tie could be over now. Still, we are happy with 2-2 because this is always a good result in an away leg."
The opening hour of this quarter-final could easily have been mistaken for a game between Barcelona's first team and a bunch of kids who had been offered a chance to take on their heroes for the day. Arsenal fans are used to seeing silky flowing football at the Emirates Stadium, but it is generally their own team producing such eye candy against Premier League minnows who are all too willing to offer themselves up for sacrifice.
However, this was a very different experience as an Arsenal side were on the end of a pummelling in what had been billed as their biggest game of the season. Barca's ball control and passing ability was making a side who pride themselves on such attributes look like amateurs and a humiliation could have been on the cards had the visitors taken even a percentage of the chances they created.
They may have been thrashed by Premier League rivals Manchester United and Chelsea on home soil this season, but this experience threatened to be all the more horrifying, with only their much maligned keeper Manuel Almunia keeping the Gunners in the game as he pulled off stunning saves from Ibrahimovic and the somewhat disappointing Leo Messi.
With the increasingly diluted chants of the home fans losing conviction even though their side were still on level terms, those of us without a bias either way were left to marvel at the team performing so majestically before us. Barca were playing a tune that was as sweet as you could come across on a football field. Every member of Guardiola's side looked so composed on the ball, with their swift and incisive passing impossible for Arsenal to stop and by half-time the possession count read 71% against 29%.
The weight of pressure simply had to tell and so it proved a matter of seconds into the second half as Ibrahimovic broke clear to score and when the big Swede added his second after 59 minutes, it seemed as if this one-sided tie had taken its decisive turn.
Arsenal fans did their best to distract attentions by offering Barca substitute Thierry Henry a hearty ovation as he warmed up on the touchline, yet it was the introduction of Walcott that revived Arsenal's hopes. He played his part in the equaliser and the home side then relied on a poor refereeing decision to give them a penalty that gave them an undeserved equaliser.
It left Arsenal toasting an unlikely escape, yet those who trust in Arsene may have to turn to an even greater power if they retain any hopes of plotting a route to the semi-finals at the Nou Camp next week.
Miracles are rarely bestowed on a team so comprehensively outplayed and only divine intervention will be enough to save Arsenal when they run into this magnificent, beautiful Barcelona team once again next Tuesday night.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Xavi - Ibrahimovic may have stolen the headlines with his two goals, but Xavi was the architect of this Barca triumph. His midfield invention was enough to see him outshine the great Messi.
FABREGAS MISERY: The yellow card he picked up rules him out of the second leg of this quarter-final, but his troublesome knee appeared to give way as he converted Arsenal's unlikely equaliser late on. He is out of Saturday's game against Wolves and Wenger fears the damage may be more serious.
BARCA VERDICT: Brilliant for an hour, they will march through on home soil next week. Arsenal should feel no shame losing to opponents this good.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Heroism may prove costly for Arsenal as the damaged caused by their dramatic late comeback in this tie will leave a lasting mark. Fabregas, William Gallas and their pride will all have taken a battering after this lesson in football. Wenger told French TV that Gallas will be out for the season with a leg injury.