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Wilshere comes of age as late strikes seal Arsenal comeback

Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1

van Persie 78, Arshavin 83; Villa 26

Barcelona had 61% of possession and completed twice as many passes as them, but Arsenal doubled the La Liga leaders’ tally in the one statistic which really matters. Prompted by the outstanding Jack Wilshere, late goals by Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin gave them a 2-1 lead at the midway point of their Champions League last-16 tie. More importantly, they will take great heart from a battling, never-say-die performance which saw them stand toe-to-toe with Pep Guardiola’s side throughout the game, even if they had reason to be thankful for Lionel Messi‘s profligate finishing.

Samir Nasri was passed fit and went straight back into the starting line-up at the expense of Andrey Arshavin. Emmanuel Eboué filled in at right back for the suspended Bacary Sagna, who had been sent off in the closing minutes of the final group game at home to Partizan Belgrade.

Szczęsny

Eboué – Djourou – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Wilshere

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

The two sides had met at the quarter-final stage last season. Already without long-term absentee Robin van Persie, Arsenal were totally outplayed for an hour at the Emirates but battled back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. However, by the end of the game Cesc Fàbregas, William Gallas and Arshavin had also been lost to injury, and a severely depleted team were overrun at the Camp Nou, where Messi scored four times to give Barcelona a 6-3 aggregate win.

Interestingly, in five previous games between the two teams – two draws, three Barcelona wins – neither side had kept a single clean sheet.

Villa makes Arsenal pay for a lack of concentration

If anything, Arsenal shaded the early exchanges. There was certainly no repeat of the first half of last season’s first leg, which the home side spent chasing shadows.

Arsenal’s brightest moments early on came via Theo Walcott, whose pace clearly worried the Barcelona back line and full back Maxwell in particular. Twice in the first six minutes the England international panicked the visitors. First he embarked on a mazy 50-yard run, but overhit his through-ball for van Persie. A minute later, he dribbled across the face of the box and rolled the ball for Fàbregas, whose clever chip set up van Persie for a fierce drive which Victor Valdés did well to block.

Wilshere was Arsenal's outstanding player on the night (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But it is virtually impossible to keep Barcelona – looking somewhat unfamiliar in their peppermint change strip – subdued for long, and they repeatedly threatened to get behind Arsenal’s high back line. Messi, of all people, chipped wide after David Villa put him through one-on-one with Wojciech Szczęsny.

Then, seconds after Arsenal had wasted a three-on-three break, the home defence was finally breached. Messi held off Alex Song and played in Villa, who timed his run perfectly to beat the offside trap as Arsenal were caught ball-watching. He finished clinically through Szczęsny’s legs.

Barcelona started to stroke the ball around with ominous ease and Arsenal were grateful to Szczęsny, who twice denied Pedro with fine saves. On the second occasion, Messi’s follow-up header was ruled out, somewhat dubiously, for offside.

Encouragingly, though, Arsenal continued to create openings. A surging run by Wilshere set up van Persie, but the Dutchman screwed his shot wide under pressure. A Fàbregas shot was blocked by Gerard Piqué. Van Persie headed over under pressure by Eric Abidal. Although the final ball or shot was too often lacking, they were at least creating chances and remained very much in the game.

Arsenal come roaring back

If Arsenal’s confidence was at all shaken, it certainly didn’t show as they started the second half at a high tempo, subduing Barcelona and creating the lion’s share of the chances. Wilshere tested Valdés early on after a quick exchange with Fàbregas. Van Persie tried a couple of 20-yarders, curling the first high and wide, then offering up a simple catch for the Spanish keeper.

Barcelona were not wholly without threat, however, and Messi offered a timely reminder by shooting into the side netting from a promising position. He really should have scored, and a second goal at that stage could well have been decisive, if harsh on the hosts.

At the mid-point of the second half Villa was replaced by Seydou Keita as Guardiola looked to close out the game, while Arsène Wenger signalled his positive intent by sending on first Andrey Arshavin for Song, and then Nicklas Bendtner for Walcott.

Arshavin's coolly taken winner completed a memorable comeback (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The changes seemed to galvanise Arsenal, who scored within two minutes of Bendtner’s arrival – with the Dane indirectly playing a role in the goal. Gaël Clichy found van Persie in the box with a weighted chip. From a seemingly impossible angle, he lashed the ball past Valdés at his unguarded near post, with the Barcelona keeper seemingly anticipating a pull-back to the lurking Bendtner.

The Premier League side weren’t finished yet, though. Five minutes later, Fàbregas sent Nasri accelerating away down the right flank. The Frenchman cut inside before calmly pulling the ball back for Arshavin, who casually passed the ball into the bottom corner from 15 yards out. Cue mass hysteria among the home fans.

Arsenal being Arsenal, there were a few heart-in-mouth moments in the closing minutes, not least an injury time Arshavin back header which brushed his hand and sold Szczęsny horribly short, initiating a mad scramble in the box. But hold on they did. Although they had ridden their luck at times, they had produced a stirring and deserved fightback, which has yielded a slender but precious lead to defend in the away leg.

Post-match reaction & analysis

It was no surprise that Wenger was thrilled with both the result and the performance after the game:

I am highly delighted because it was a special football match. The game promised a lot and absolutely fulfilled the promises between two exceptional football teams who always try to play. We were not only strong on the physical side but on the mental side, we kept resilient. We took advantage of one special piece of skill from Van Persie and the goal for the second was after some good build-up play. It was a special night. When we suffered, the fans were still very positive.

Tonight’s result gives us a chance to go to Barcelona with belief. We know it will be a very difficult game but we will prepare well. We will be highly focused and we go to win our game.

He was quick to play down Arsenal’s chances when asked whether they were now favourites to progress to the quarter-finals:

We are not favourites. We believe we have a chance. Barcelona are still favourites and we know tonight that we can beat them – which we did not know last year.

He also picked out three players for specific praise. He described Wilshere as “outstanding tonight. He was not fazed by the occasion.” Nasri, on his return from injury after a 2½-week absence, “started hesitantly and became more confident”. And Laurent Koscielny “was outstanding”.

For me, Nasri was perhaps a shade below the other two, but he grew as the game went on and, despite his layoff, still had the energy and composure to set off on the lung-bursting run to set up Arshavin’s winner. His ability to exploit space behind Barcelona’s defence – coupled with Walcott’s pace on the other flank – will provide a valuable outlet at the Camp Nou, where Arsenal will expect to have to play on the counter-attack for long periods.

Wilshere was simply outstanding for the whole 90 minutes, eclipsing even his captain, who had a relatively quiet game by his standards. In the past, with Fàbregas slightly below his best, Arsenal would have lost this game. But the 19-year old covered an impressive amount of ground in both attack and defence, and his distribution was quick, precise and always progressive. He completed all 24 of his passes in the first half, and there was barely a misplaced ball in the second. He continues to grow with every big game he plays in, and after several coruscating performances over the past six months, this was perhaps his finest of the lot. He truly has come of age this season.

Defensively, although things got a bit hairy at times – as they will inevitably do against Barcelona – this was a far more solid showing than in either of last year’s two games. Clichy was at times overrun when faced with the combination of Pedro and Dani Alves, but held his own and did not suffer the one moment of brain-fade which so often characterises his game when put under pressure. Eboué was willing but largely ineffective. But in the centre of defence Johan Djourou and Koscielny, who gave arguably his most polished performance in an Arsenal shirt, continued to grow as a partnership, with both making several timely interceptions and tackles. Behind them, Szczęsny was quick off his line and looked dominant in one-on-ones.

Up front, Nasri grew stronger as the game went on, culminating in his pivotal role in Arsenal’s second goal, while Walcott, after a bright start, faded in the second half. Van Persie, who has been on fire over the past few weeks, was having one of those nights when every shot seemed destined to end up in the vicinity of the old Highbury stadium – until he drilled home the equaliser. But his overall play, albeit without any real service for long spells of the game, was excellent.

Finally, a nod to the twelfth man – the Emirates crowd – which cheered the team on throughout and stayed positive even while their side trailed. On nights like this, they can – and do – make a big difference.

Sunday sees a real case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’, as Arsenal travel to Leyton Orient in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Expect a full second XI to play, to give the starters a break before playing two vital games in the following week – a must-win home game against Stoke, and the Carling Cup final against Birmingham. Thrilling though it will be, the return leg in Barcelona is a long way away, and there are four (possibly five) games to negotiate between now and then, all of which are equally important. By the time Arsenal travel to the Camp Nou, they could be top of the Premier League and winners of the Carling Cup. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

14 Responses to Wilshere comes of age as late strikes seal Arsenal comeback

  1. JSP says:

    Living in Spain and lost the sky pictures due to heavy rain. I ended up watching Spanish tv and do you know the commentators didn’t rattle on half as much about how great Barcelona are than those two wallies on ITV!!! They are meant to be behind British teams and yet it was 90 minutes of Barca arse licking from the pair of them

    • Tim says:

      You’re not Jake by any chance? (Or is that another JSP?)

      You’re certainly right about ITV’s commentary. I tend to watch with the sound turned right down. It was excruciating to listen to at times – from the gasps of horror, you would have thought that Barcelona never misplaced even a single pass normally, and that we should have been tugging our forelocks rather than daring to compete with them. Don’t get me wrong, they are still an awesome side and on occasions last night ran rings around us, but we were just as good in spells and did to them what so many teams have done to us in the past – we punished them for over-elaborating and profligate finishing. Except when we do it we are “lucky”, whereas when it happens to us the opponents are “brave” and showing “true English spirit”.

      Are we paranoid about the way ITV seem to have such a downer on us, when they seem to sing the praises of United or even Spurs? Perhaps. Am I particularly bothered? No. Andy Townsend talked about the game being “educational” in footballing terms. I’m sure it was – for him – but ITV will seemingly never learn their lesson: that we’re really rather good sometimes and can play better football than anyone else in the Premier League, regardless of the nationality of our players.

      Anyway, I’m not going to be bitter any longer about ITV. The result is all that matters!

  2. JSP says:

    No not Jake, a different JSP this time.

    Pity I missed the ITV stuff when Sky went. I bet RVP’s goal was a fluke and Arshavin mis-hit the ball when he scored!!! 🙂

    It’s very very quiet in Spain today 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I can imagine. What has the reaction been from the likes of Marca and AS?

      To be fair to ITV, they lavished suitable praise on the Arshavin goal.With the equaliser, they focussed mostly on Valdes’s poor positioning, which was fair enough, I suppose.

      I loved Andrey’s goal. Given the match situation and the fact he hadn’t been on the field all that long, it showed real quality and composure the way he passed the ball into the net, as casual as you like – as if he was just knocking a little pass in a training ground kickabout. His return to form is gratifying to see – I know many fans have criticised both his form and his workrate, but at his best he is also a real difference-maker, and who knows how important that goal might yet prove in our season?

      No matter what happens in the second leg, the boys did us proud last night.

  3. JSP says:

    BTW, just got to say what an absolute star Wilshere is. He was amazing last night.

    My brother-in-law is a West Ham fan but was lucky enough to see Arsenal v Wolves over the weekend and he was total impressed with Wilshere too

    What a future this lad had. Gonna be a Barcelona target before we know it!!! 🙂

    Maybe they can play the “His roots are in Barcelona” because his great great great great great grandad was in the British Navy that sank the Spanish Armada!!! 🙂

    • Tim says:

      For me, Wilshere is at least on a par with Cesc at the same age. Both were similarly goal-shy, but Jack is a better defender than Cesc has ever been, and his range and accuracy of passing is also comparable. Apparently he only misplaced three passes last night. Three! That is incredible, particularly when you think how often he receives the ball facing his own goal and.or tightly marked.

      I don’t want Cesc to leave, of course, but in the event that he does the future is in good hands.There is no player in the Premier League better suited to replacing our captain than Jack.

  4. imzahmed29 says:

    Wilshere was outstanding. He never got scared of the occassion!

    • Tim says:

      Wilshere continues to grow with every game he plays, and it is his composure in the big games that really impresses. I think he still needs to learn how to handle himself a bit better against physical opponents, but his maturity at 19 is astonishing. I do think some of the hype surrounding him early in the season – when he had only played a handful of first-team games – was a bit premature, but having said that he has more than lived up to that hype. Now we just need Ramsey to work his way back into the squad at the level he was at last season, and we have the makings of a midfield to die for for the next decade.

      • imzahmed29 says:

        But do you reckno wilshere can handle the fear that a mega arena like the nou camp brings?

      • Tim says:

        We’ll have to see, but I don’t see why not. Jack strikes me as an extremely level-headed young man.

        Having been to Camp Nou before, the atmosphere can certainly be intimidating – but it often isn’t, except for when Real Madrid come to town, obviously. I would imagine they will be quite vocal against us in the return leg, but if we can keep Barca quiet or even get an early goal, that atmosphere will dissolve pretty quickly.

  5. Sheree says:

    Completely different response on French TV. The commentators regard Arsenal as a “French” team and could hardly contain their excitement.

    • Tim says:

      Well, I suppose that balances out the Anglophile bile we get on ITV a bit. I just watch with the sound turned down. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I seriously dislike Andy Townsend.

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