Arsenal’s players heeded manager Arsene Wenger’s advice to keep their nerve as the Gunners rallied to beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League.
Barcelona, which had 61 percent of the possession at the Emirates Stadium in London last night, led 1-0 on David Villa’s goal before a mistake by goalkeeper Victor Valdes allowed Robin van Persie to tie it in the 78th minute. Substitute Andrey Arshavin got Arsenal’s winner five minutes later.
“Against Barcelona you are exposed many times because of great possession and we kept resilient,” said Wenger, whose team lost 6-3 to Barca over two games last season. “Our players have showed exceptional strength and togetherness.”
Barcelona, which won the European Cup for the third time in 2009, completed 629 passes compared with Arsenal’s 299. Xavi Hernandez, the Catalan club’s captain, hit 109 of those successful passes, almost three times more than Arsenal’s most accurate passer Jack Wilshere, who had 40.
Getting the better of Barcelona for the first time in six attempts will give his team a psychological lift for the return round-of-16 game at the Camp Nou on March 8, Wenger said.
After rallying to draw last year’s quarterfinal opener between the teams 2-2, the Gunners were floored at the Camp Nou as Lionel Messi scored all Barcelona’s goals in a 4-1 victory.
“Barca are still favorite but we know tonight we can beat them,” Wenger said, describing the Spanish champion as “the best team in the world.”
FIFA World Player of the Year Messi, who has 32 goals in 37 games this season, almost opened the scoring last night after 16 minutes when he latched onto Villa’s pass.
With just goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to beat, the Argentine put the ball the wrong side of the post. Villa wasn’t as wasteful when Messi turned provider 10 minutes later, staying onside before putting a low shot into the corner of the goal.
Messi had a header disallowed for offside five minutes before halftime, though television replays suggested the goal should have been allowed to stand.
Although Xavi continued to dictate play in the second half, Barcelona’s superior possession failed to create clear openings.
“In general I’m happy with the performance,” Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola said. “It’s the result I don’t like.”
Wenger said he “gambled” by throwing on attackers Nicklas Bendtner and Arshavin to try to mount a comeback. Yet it was Barcelona’s Valdes who put the Gunners back into the match when he allowed Van Persie’s shot to squeeze in between him and the near post.
The goal buoyed Arsenal and roused the home crowd, which had spent much of the match silently watching Barcelona move the ball from one side of the pitch to the other and work its passing triangles.
Arshavin struck the winner in the 83rd minute. He slotted the ball through a crowd of defenders and past Valdes following a flowing move involving Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
Wenger said his team won’t sit back and defend its lead in Barcelona, while Guardiola predicted the match would be one of the highlights of the season.
“They will attack and we’re going to attack too,” Guardiola said. “If you have time and nothing to do I suggest you come and watch the game.”