James Lawton: Wenger's men showed strength where once there was weakness

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For the second time in two nights a football team from north London suggested that they might just have the skill and the spirit to conquer Europe.

Spurs did it with a near perfect performance in Milan on Tuesday – and last night Arsenal fought their way out of the tightest of corners.

But no one will complain, not least their manager, Arsène Wenger, who at one point faced another humiliating attack on his deepest ambition. Then Robin van Persie and substitute Andrei Arshavin showed the touch and the skill to match anything before them.

For the most admired club team in world football it was both an affront and shock – and it might also be calamitous. The last time Barcelona were here they took your breath away; they played with such beauty and force it was as though they had come with a single cruel purpose. It was, you had to believe, to impress upon Arsenal how the gap that looked so fine in the 2006 final at the Stade de France, when Thierry Henry, of all people, failed to pull the trigger, had grown so vast down the intervening years.

This time Barcelona were rather more circumspect. Maybe they remembered the firestorm burned away after 30 unforgettable but indecisive minutes in last season's quarter-final and that it was only in the second leg at the Nou Camp, when Arsenal had half a team missing, that the sword strokes of Lionel Messi were finally inflicted.

Still, they got round to it soon enough – or at least the threat of another undressing – and inevitably it was Messi who delivered the message.

It's quite hard to know precisely what the little master does best – lacerate or hypnotise his victims. There was a little of both in the way he released David Villa for the goal that invited a wave of Arsenal dread.

Half the stadium, and the one including Wenger, were convinced that Villa was offside, but if the margin was fine it had been read beautifully and duly acted upon by Messi. Villa inherited the ball in an ocean of space and celebrated by stroking it between the legs of the lonely Wojciech Szczesny.

Arsenal were briefly stunned, perhaps even disillusioned. But to their great credit they refused to stop believing in themselves and fought back from the blow – and a mesmerising series of Barcelona's passing triangles and other sophistications.

For a while this was mostly a tribute to the pride of Cesc Fabregas and his brilliant – and dogged – English lieutenant Jack Wilshere. They said no, they would not submit to the ceaseless passing rhythms of Messi and his assistants Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Arsenal would make something of a fight of it, as they did so memorably when Barcelona moved into a two-goal lead here last March.

The result could scarcely have been more dramatic as first Robin van Persie, then Arshavin delivered a one-two combination that left Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola railing, for the second time in a week, at the chasm that sprang up between the beauty and the product of his team's performance.

For Wenger, there was an entirely different sensation. It was one of unexpectedly revived hope. At one point, he was facing the prospect of being squeezed out of the tournament he yearns to win. Not pummelled, not expelled as was the first threat – but, as the game wore on, just passed into oblivion. Van Persie brought the first relief when he ran on to a fine pass from Gaël Clichy and scored a goal from one of those acute angles which demanded the finest technique and the coolest of heads. The Dutchman has not always been impeccable in the latter category but on this occasion he was quite perfect.

When a previously anonymous Samir Nasri broke free and patiently waited for the run of Arshavin, suddenly, there was a sense that another Arsenal Champions League campaign might not necessarily be doomed. Arshavin fired in with revived certainty and a fine win was achieved.

Whether the new hope can survive in Barcelona is, of course, by no means certain. Barcelona need to win only by 1-0, a feat which for most of last night seemed comfortably within their reach. However, Arsenal are alive once more – and this time they may just be strong at some previously broken places.



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