What a night: Agony, ecstacy and injury for Arsenal and Cesc Fabregas
Arsene Wenger feels that Arsenal still have a chance to qualify for the semi-finals of the Champions League after watching his side fight back to hold the European champions to a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Emirates. The G
Paul Chronnell at Emirates Stadium
Arsene Wenger feels that Arsenal still have a chance to qualify for the semi-finals of the Champions League after watching his side fight back to hold the European champions to a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Emirates.
The Gunners will need a win or a high-scoring draw to have a chance of progressing but Wenger feels that the character they showed in the first leg gives them hope in the Nou Camp.
"I am still convinced that we can make life difficult for them in the second tie and that we have a chance to qualify," said the Gunners' boss.
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Why do I say that? Because we have to study how we were dominant - I believe that when we won the ball back we always looked dangerous, especially when we exploited some of their weaknesses. We have to go for that."
Wenger admitted his 'gambles' on the fitness of captain Cesc Fabregas and former skipper William Gallas had backfired after both picked up what could be season-ending injuries, while Andrey Arshavin also limped off in the first half and is unlikely to be fit for the second leg.
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"It was a gamble worth taking," said Fabregas afterwards, having sustained the injury either winning or scoring the the penalty that brought the scores level in the 85th minute against his former club.
"It was an amazing experience, an amazing game and I will remember it all my life. The injury was bad but I think I would have done it anyway," said the Gunners captain who was suspended from the second leg in any case having picked up a third Champions League booking of the season for a first-half tackle on Sergio Busquets.
The worry is that he will miss a lot more games than that, with a scan today at the training ground set to determine the length of his absence. Wenger confirmed Fabregas will certainly miss Saturday's game, and that Gallas could be out for the rest of the season with a recurrence of his calf problem.
But the Frenchman acknowledged that it would be churlish merely to focus on the negatives of a quite enthralling match that had the Emirates, and the rest of Europe watching on television, captivated.
Barcelona were a blur of artistic brilliance in the opening 25 minutes when they were simply on a different level to Arsenal, as they would have been to any other team.
Led by Lionel Messi and the elusive Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Spanish attacks came in wave after wave, but each time were repelled by a combination of some brilliant Manuel Almunia saves and some rank bad finishing.
The lanky Swede Ibrahimovic was the worst culprit, and Arsenal almost applied the classic sucker punch they are more used to receiving when Nicklas Bendtner hit a post when he really should have scored eight minutes before the break.
The Fabregas booking apart, Arsenal entered the dressing room at half-time doubtlessly overjoyed that they were still in the tie, let alone the game, such had been the visitors' dominance.
But within seconds of the restart, Barcelona were ahead and the goal came, as Wenger later lamented, from 'unbelievable' defending.
Alex Song, who had stepped back into defence once Gallas departed on a stretcher in the first half, seemed to have a communication breakdown with Almunia and Thomas Vermaelen, and Ibrahimovic took full advantage, lobbing over the exposed Arsenal keeper and into the net from the right-hand side of the box.
The goal deflated a buoyant Emirates, but there was worse to come on the hour-mark as a perfect pass from the impeccable Xavi split the Gunners' defence, and Ibrahimovic raced clear to lash a high finish past a groping Almunia.
The game, and the tie, looked dead. But Arsenal were given the most unlikely of lifelines when Theo Walcott, having replaced Bacary Sagna just three minutes earlier, latched on to a Bendtner pass and rifled in a low shot that Barca keeper Victor Valdes somehow allowed to squirm under him and into the net.
The lift the goal gave Arsenal and the supporters was almost visible and, led by the selfless Fabregas, knowing this was his last possible input into the tie - and now possibly the season - poured forward in search of an equaliser.
It came in fortuitous manner. Fabregas moved on to a Bendtner knockdown inside the Barcelona area when he clashed with Barca captain Carles Puyol.
Initially it seemed the chance had passed, but referee Massimo Busacca pointed to the spot and pulled out the red card for a fairly astonished Puyol, who took some persuading to leave the field.
After a lengthy delay Fabregas, who had possibly already picked up his shin injury in the challenge but was too fired up by adrenaline to notice, drove a hard spot-kick past Valdes and Arsenal were breathlessly, incredulously, level.
They could even have won it late on as Fabregas, hobbling along on one leg, was clear in the box and was almost picked out by an Emmanuel Eboue cross.
That would have too magical an ending even for this bewitching game. Part II at the Nou Camp on Tuesday promises to be another memorable night, even if the odds seem heavily stacked against Arsenal emerging victorious.