Beaten at their own game

Arsenal stunned Barcelona in the Champions League but can they do it again?

Beaten at their own game

Arsenal came from a goal down to beat Barcelona, the best team in the world — and to beat it with youth and spirit and skills, all of which are Barca’s own qualities. A compelling night in London, but as Arsenal’s players acknowledge, a job only half done, with the second leg in Catalunya to come.

Barcelona is renowned for its academy, but Barca, as everyone knows, is built around Lionel Messi, who went there as a sickly child of 13 from Argentina.

One reason that Barca has won every honor in the world is Messi’s desire to be a team man despite having scored 87 goals in his last 88 performances. That statistic is now one less than perfect symmetry because Leo did not score at Arsenal.

Such failure. He missed three chances he would normally score. He set up the goal that David Villa struck to put Barcelona ahead. But the cold statistics say that Messi has never yet scored in six appearances in England.

Arsenal will beware. Messi did not strike in London when they met last year either, but how many goals did he get in the second match in Barcelona? Just the four, in a 4-1 home triumph. The London club, which in style and purity is as close to Barca as it gets, has matured. Out of the mouth of its youngest performer, Jack Wilshere, who turned 19 on New Year’s Day, came this assessment of Arsenal’s 2-1 victory:

“This is my best day as an Arsenal player so far. Barcelona had a spell of 20 minutes in the first half when we couldn’t get the ball off them. But we knew that could happen, we just had to hold on, defend as well as we could, and catch them on the break. And we did.” As simple, and as darned hard as that.

Over the first hour, Arsenal hit 203 passes. Barcelona hit twice as many, with greater accuracy, penetration and inventiveness. Arsenal was playing well; Barca was better. For some reason, Barcelona then slowed the tempo. It tried to take risk out of the game, to hold the ball and hold slender advantage. Pep Guardiola, its young coach, blinked first. His substitution in the 68th minute took off Villa, the goal scorer, and put on the combative midfielder Seydou Keita.

Arsenal’s coach, Arsene Wenger, took the opposite approach. He withdrew Alex Song, his midfield anchor who was in danger of a red card for persistent mistimed tackles, and sent on his Russian pocket dynamo forward, Andrei Arshavin.

“I knew if I had a chance, I would have to score,” Arshavin said later in front of what remained of the reported global television audience of 300 million. “This is the best atmosphere, the best emotion, since I joined Arsenal. That’s why today was special.”

His goal, the match winner after Robin van Persie had equalized, was also pretty special. Arsenal turned defence into attack in four passes in under 20 seconds. Wilshere passed to Cesc Fabregas, and Fabregas, the Catalan in Arsenal’s lineup, hit a glorious ball into the path of Samir Nasri on the right wing.

Nasri was too quick, too clever for Brazilian defender Maxwell. He cut the ball back toward the edge of the penalty area where Arshavin was arriving at pace. And the Russian knew if he had a chance, he had to score. He did, with a placement of such sweet direction and timing that Victor Valdes, the Barcelona goalie, was beaten before he could move.

There were so many reasons why Arsenal won and Barcelona lost this game. The missed chances by Messi; the static defending of Gerard Piqué on the first goal and Maxwell on the second; the fact that Valdes left his near post unguarded for van Persie’s goal. But the crux of it was that Barcelona stopped being Barcelona after an hour.

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