Barcelona heavyweights fail to land decisive blow

Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2
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The Independent Online

It had been billed as the Lionel Messi show, but it was his old youth-team colleague who was centre stage by the end of a strange and brilliant match. Cesc Fabregas was not really fit to start this Champions League quarter-final, and was certainly in no state to play football by the end of it, but in between he rescued Arsenal from ignominy and kept the tie alive.

It is not clear whether Fabregas's fibula is broken, and if it is whether the stress fracture was incurred at St Andrew's on Saturday or during last night's game, but there is no doubt he played through considerable pain to haul the Gunners back into a match in which they had been outclassed for the best part of an hour. By then Zlatan Ibrahimovic had scored twice and the tie seemed dead. But this Arsenal team do not lack for resolve and they drew level with goals by Theo Walcott and Fabregas - with a penalty given for a foul on himself, providing hope for Tuesday's second leg.

Four bookings underlined Arsenal's early struggle to contain Barcelona, one for Fabregas who would therefore miss what would have been an emotional return to the Nou Camp even if fit. A measure of his personal contribution is that both Barça centre-halves, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will also be banned after red and yellow cards respectively for fouling their fellow Catalan.

It was a bewitching game, and a odd one. Barcelona dazzled with the passing triangles, their interplay and movement, yet their goals were, as Arsène Wenger lamented, "cheap". In each case Ibrahimovic ran unmarked onto simple through passes, the first a basic long ball. With hindsight Wenger may feel he made the wrong call when William Gallas was carried off with the latest breakdown of the troublesome calf injury which he fears spells the end of his season. Rather than bring on Sol Campbell, Wenger moved Alex Song into the back four. He had filled in successfully as a centre-half against West Ham last week, but Ibrahimovic is a different proposition to Mido and Song lost him for both goals. With Gallas out Wenger has a big decision to make for the return.

Manuel Almunia was also at fault for the first goal, in the opening minute of the second half, which was cruel as the Spaniard was the reason Arsenal went into the break on level terms. The goalkeeper had been made captain and if it was designed as a vote of confidence after his howler at St Andrew's it initially worked like can of spinach on Popeye with Almunia heroic in an opening quarter that was astonishingly one-sided.

Arsenal began with a foray down the left flank that came to naught; and barely escaped their half for another 20 minutes. Messi set the tone by leading the counter-attack from Arsenal's opening sally. The move culminated in a corner which was pulled back to the unmarked Sergi Busquets. His shot was athletically turned away by Almunia.

Four minutes later Messi dribbled through the heart of Arsenal's defence to be denied by the foot of Almunia. The keeper next made a double-save from Ibrahimovic and Xavi in an extraordinary passage of play in which Song also cleared a Messi volley off the line.

Arsenal were discovering what it was like being on the receiving end of a chasing such as they normally give opponents, and many a Premier League midfielder, recalling chastening matches at their hands, will have enjoyed watching. Arsenal had the ball under their control for nine minutes of the half, Barcelona for 20.

Arsenal ended up reacting the way so many of their opponents do, to Wenger's ire, with indiscriminate tackles. Andrei Arshavin and Song were booked, Gaël Clichy should have been. Then Fabregas was, a decision that made him sink to his knees in despair. After a quiet start he had grown into the game but, as half-time approached he chased back to tackle Busquets. He got the ball but his trailing leg took the man. It was, with bitter irony, similar in that respect to the tackle by Craig Gardner which lamed him at the weekend. The Birmingham man was not even pulled up for a foul, but in the Champions League such tackles are not allowed.

If half-time came with Arsenal relieved to be on level terms they were soon behind. Almunia came to collect a long ball forward, realised Ibrahimovic would get there first, and, furiously backpedalled. The Swede coolly lobbed him, and celebrated as if surprised, as well he might be after 10 previous blanks against English clubs.

Another Scandinavian, who probably regards Ibrahimovic as "the Swedish Bendtner", should have levelled nine minutes later. Fabregas and Clichy worked an opening on the left but Bendtner headed the latter's cross straight at Valdes.

Ibrahimovic struck again on the hour, running onto Xavi's pass before lashing a shot past Almunia. It looked as if Arsenal were set for a humbling but, roared on by a desperate crowd, they dragged themselves back into the game with 21 minutes left. Samir Nasri found Bendtner whose clever pass freed Walcott. The game's lone Englishman slid his shot under Valdes.

Arsenal pushed forward with renewed belief and levelled with seven minutes remaining. Bendtner was again influential, laying off a header to Fabregas who was bundled over by Puyol as he shaped to shoot. Fabregas dispatched the kick. The shot count was 22-6 in Barcelona's favour, but only goals count in football and Arsenal, somehow, go to Spain on level terms.

Arsenal (4-3-1-2): Almunia; Sagna (Walcott, 67), Gallas (Denilson, 43), Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Diaby; Fabregas; Nasri, Bendtner, Arshavin (Eboue, 27). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Rosicky, Eduardo, Campbell.

Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Dani Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell; Busquets, Xavi; Pedro, Messi (Milito, 86), Keita; Ibrahimovic (Henry, 77). Substitutes not used: Pinto (gk), Marquez, Bojan, Toure, Jeffren.

Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).