Arsenal Mount Champions League Fightback!

Arsenal fought back from two goals down to hold 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 gave the hosts parity on the night.
Barcelona take the away goals advantage into the second leg, although they will be without captain Carlos Puyol, who was sent off for a foul on Fabregas that gave him his goal from the penalty spot.
Fabregas will also miss the return tie at his boyhood club after picking up a third booking of 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 with injuries in the first half.
Their replacements, initially wowed by the free-flowing Catalans, more than impressed with their fight-back although the injury to Gallas was key as midfielder Alexandre Song – forced to move back to centre-half – let Ibrahimovic escape him 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 keeping 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.
Ibra’s finishes were majestic: the first, 25 seconds in, was a delicate lob from an angle over the onrushing Manuel Almunia, while the second on the hour was a blasted effort into the roof of the net after Arsenal’s defence parted for the Swede.
Both goals saw Almunia and Gael Clichy culpable, the former for his decision-making and the latter for his positioning, although the real culprit was poor Song, who was caught ball-watching when he let Ibrahimovic run clear twice.
Pep Guardiola’s side dominated the opening exchanges, racking up 12 efforts on goal and a possession ratio of 70-30 in the first half hour, with Arsenal restricted to a sole effort when Samir Nasri sent a curling shot 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 Niklas Bendtner culminated in a brilliant cross for Abou Diaby, who beat Gerard 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 Victor Valdes before putting the rebound on the post.
Arsenal were struggling on several fronts: Andrei Arshavin and William Gallas aggravated injuries and were taken off, while Fabregas – who started despite carrying a knee problem – barely featured before picking up a booking that ruled him out of an emotional return leg to his boyhood club.
But 23 seconds after the second-half restart, Song allowed Ibrahimovic to get between him and Thomas Vermaelen with 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 almost got a second from the counter attack as Xavi headed wide from close range after Alves exploited Clichy’s up-field position.
They bagged their second five minutes later when, after Clichy was pulled wode, Vermaelen was dragged away from goal by Messi and Ibrahimovic was given the freedom of the penalty area by the slow-reacting Song.
His finish into the roof of the net was 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.
Puyol was given his marching orders while fellow Catalan Fabregas rifled the spot-kick into the bottom left with five minutes left.
It was effectively 10-a-side though, as Fabregas appeared to injure himself and returned to the field after receiving some treatment, barely mobile in the closing stages.
Arsenal still had the edge though, 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.

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