Thursday 18 January 2018

Fabregas keeps hopes alive

Arsenal skipper makes Barca pay penalty but yellow fever rules Gunners talisman out of second leg

Henry Winter at the Emirates

Barcelona were cruising towards the semi-finals of the Champions League when Arsene Wenger unleashed Theo Walcott, who ran the Catalans ragged, scoring one and helping create Cesc Fabregas' equaliser.

For all Walcott's wizardry, and Arsenal's resilience, this scoreline is an utter travesty. It indicates that Arsenal matched Barcelona when, in truth, Wenger's side were given a lesson in the art and craft of possession by Pep Guardiola's team of all the talents for whom Xavi was exceptional.

Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had never previously scored against English opponents in 10 attempts, struck twice, valuable away goals to take back to the Nou Camp next week.

Fabregas will be suspended for that game, having collected a first-half booking, but Arsenal will take hope from the suspensions that deprives Guardiola of his first-choice central-defensive pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. But if Arsenal are to have any chance of overturning the odds in Catalonia then Wenger must start Walcott, whose pace and sense of adventure proved so important.

Even before Ibrahimovic's wonderful brushstrokes, Wenger's prediction that this would be a night of art was swiftly confirmed: this was a Catalan expressionist movement versus London still life.

Until Walcott's dramatic arrival, Arsenal resembled statues at times as Barcelona flowed around them, claiming 71pc of possession in a first half of unending astonishment, not least the 0-0 scoreline.

Short of nipping into the club shop, Arsenal had no way of gaining the ball.

Only a Spaniard, Manuel Almunia, kept back the tide launched by Lionel Messi, Xavi and their elegant company and only until 20 seconds into the second period. Arsenal were second best.

So used to out-passing opponents, Wenger's men were being beaten at their own stylish game. Wave after attacking wave crashed down on the red ramparts, the upbeat tempo set within seconds by the peerless Messi, who ghosted away from Alex Song and Abou Diaby.


Although not at his very beast, the little Argentine with the grand talent was still everywhere, a thrilling embodiment of the turbocharged Total football that Barcelona have so gloriously copyrighted.

Guardiola's glee club passed and moved, interchanged and raided. Maxwell was ostensibly at left-back but the Brazilian roamed down the flank, even inside.

Bacara Sagna kept getting sucked in, a tendency Barcelona swiftly spotted and exploited with some cross-field passes to release Maxwell and his silver hammer of a left boot into untended pastures.

Over on the right, Dani Alves matched that movement and hunger for the ball.

Such was his irresistible form that Gael Clichy resorted to a late kick to stop him. Song also had a couple of digs at Messi, rather belying Arsenal's purist principles.

Owning the ball for large periods of the first half, Barcelona had everything but the goal. Sergio Busquets let fly, forcing Almunia into the first of a series of saves. Manuel denying Barcelona? Basil Fawlty would have been confused.

Still Barca came, Ibrahimovic somehow wasting Alves' perfect cross by lifting the ball so far over it seemed an affront to Barcelona's technically sublime football. The Swede's haplessness from six yards then contrasted so markedly with his accuracy and deftness when defeating Almunia 20 seconds after the restart.

Even before then, the European champions enjoyed enough chances to break through. Ibrahimovic and Xavi would have scored but for Almunia's alert positioning. But Barcelona are not just a creature of rare beauty, there is a bite to them as even Messi showed, catching Song late.

Barcelona kept building and creating, always having a man over, a player available. Each of Guardiola's fine footballers wanted the ball, wanted to join the attacks. Even Pique briefly vacated his defensive station, meeting Alves' cross with a firm header straight at Almunia.

Arsenal tried to respond. When Andrei Arshavin had a dart down the right, Arsenal fans were up out of their seats, screaming "Go on the Russian''.

Not for long. Booked for a foul on Busquets, Arshavin soon limped off injured. At least Samir Nasri was having an impact, running at Alves, bending a shot just wide of Victor Valdes' left-hand upright.

Nicklas Bendtner worked willingly, even displaying excellent feet in manoeuvring the ball past Busquets and Maxwell before lifting in a cross met by Diaby, whose header slipped wide.

Back came Barcelona, Messi unlucky not to win a penalty when challenged clumsily by Clichy. Bendtner briefly threatened, bringing a save from Valdes, before Ibrahimovic, the experienced Swede, gave the young Dane a lesson in the art of finishing in the second half.

When Pique clipped the ball down the inside-right channel, Thomas Vermaelen was caught badly out of position, allowing Ibrahimovic to glide through and lift the ball almost arrogantly over Almunia.

William Gallas having hobbled off, Song was now at centre-half and the lack of communication with Vermaelen was chronic. Before Swedish lightning struck twice, a quickfire Arsenal attack involving Fabregas and Clichy ended with Bendtner's header saved.

Then came Ibrahimovic again, running on to Xavi's pass, again down the inside-right, again with the same murderous result, the ball propelled past Almunia, this time with great power.

The tie felt over until Walcott sped on, soon seizing on Bendtner's pass to guide the ball from right to left past Valdes. Now Arsenal believed, and began pushing forward more purposefully.

Fabregas at last began to show following the booking that removes him from an emotional trip to the Nou Camp, his alma mater.

Talking of homecomings, Thierry Henry was cheered loudly when he ran on, although the moment he touched the ball, he was ironically booed.

Walcott's impact was immense. When the England winger then sped down the right, lifting over a cross, Bendtner's clever header set up Fabregas.

Just as the Arsenal captain was about to shoot, his legs tangled with Puyol's and Barcelona's leader was dismissed to his great credulity and lusty chants of "adios''. As Puyol trudged to the tunnel, Fabregas made short work of the penalty, thumping it past Valdes. The tie remains alive.

Just. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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