It was fitting that, on the night he faced his old club – and amid feverish speculation about a possible return to the Catalan side in the summer – Cesc Fábregas should provide the night’s pivotal moment. Arsenal’s fulcrum had spent much of the night on the periphery, a niggling injury sapping him of his usual industrious energy. But with five minutes remaining, Fábregas latched onto an uncommonly delicate knockdown from Nicklas Bendtner, and was tripped by Carles Puyol.
Replays suggested contact was minimal, the Arsenal captain hooking his leg around his counterpart in an attempt to strike the ball, before going to ground. To Puyol’s disbelief the penalty was awarded, with the Spaniard subsequently red-carded having apparently prevented a clear goalscoring opportunity. Fábregas smashed the penalty home to put Arsenal on terms – an unlikely scoreline given Barcelona’s dominance of the opening hour.
Arsenal were thankful to their oft-maligned goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for keeping the away side out, in a first half where the home team struggled to get a foothold. With Xavi in particularly eye-catching form, only Almunia’s excellence and Spanish profligacy kept the scoreline goalless. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the most culpable, blazing over after a pinpoint cross from the consistently dynamic Alves.
Arriving with a reputation as a flat-track bully thanks in part to a poor European scoring record, Ibrahimovic’s woes were not to last, as the Swede finally broke his duck against English clubs. Within thirty seconds of the restart, a lofted ball from Gerard Piqué found a gaping hole in the Arsenal rearguard, between an out-of-sorts Thomas Vermaelen and makeshift centre-half Alexandre Song. Almunia advanced, then retreated, allowing Ibrahimovic to float the ball over the stranded keeper and into the Arsenal net.
It was no more than Barcelona deserved, and a second duly arrived in similar circumstances less than quarter of an hour later. This time Xavi’s chip forward found Ibrahimovic, darting into the inside right channel before driving a powerful finish high over Almunia’s outstretched gloves.
With thoughts of November’s demolition by Chelsea likely echoing in the minds of the home fans, a hush descended over the Emirates, though the introduction of Theo Walcott soon raised the volume. Left-back Maxwell had already been caught out once by the England winger before a second burst through saw Walcott finish clinically past Victor Valdés, though the experienced custodian may be disappointed at allowing Walcott’s shot to squirm under his right arm.
New belief began to flow through Arsenal veins, and this young side – arguably a little more mentally tough than in previous years – were not to be denied. Fábregas struck his spot-kick with such ferocity that he seemed to aggravate his existing leg injury. His selfless determination to play on for the remaining five minutes was perhaps indicative of his side’s new-found grit, though his disappointment at picking up a yellow card for a seemingly innocuous challenge on the marauding Sergio Busquets was palpable.
Whether through injury or suspension, the Arsenal captain will miss the second leg on Tuesday: the prodigal son will not get the return home he so craved. Barcelona remain strong favourites to win the tie in Camp Nou next Tuesday, particularly given injuries to William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin and the continuing absence of Robin van Persie. But those departing the Emirates last night will have left heartened by their team’s admirable spirit, and hopeful that it can carry them to an unlikely semi-final place.