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Life President
May 29, 2005
When two teams of the highest calibre collide, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that they negate each other and the feature becomes something of an anti-climax. Not when Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola are around. No. This was special.

Barcelona flew out of the traps as if to snatch a stranglehold on the tie early on. Much had been made of Lionel Messi’s class and form entering the game, some quarters commenting that he was better than Maradona at the same age; apparently nobody had informed Alexandre Song, who shamefully allowed the diminutive Argentinian to weave his magic in front of the Arsenal box on a number of occasions.

Thankfully, Manuel Almunia was listening, and produced a series of fabulous stops against Messi, Ibrahimovic, Xavi and Messi again. This was indeed a footballing extravaganza, it’s just Barcelona were playing the part of the playground bully, not letting the younger kids play.

The first half continued along the same font. Barcelona stringing Arsenal along, prodding and poking for an opening that a half-fit William Gallas just couldn’t close. Gallas followed Arshavin off the field, Eboue and Denilson replacing them in a move that saw Song switched to centre back and Messi almost salivating at the thought.

The dichotomy of Barcelona’s game plan, dragging the full backs forward to allow the likes of Messi and Pedro to drift inside, allows gaping holes to form further up the field and, as the half dragged on, Arsenal became fully aware of the space. Nasri continued to haunt the shadow left by Dani Alves’ jaunts into Arsenal territory and, in truth, could have seen a number of crosses connected with. As far as first half stalemates go, this was truly engaging.
If the first half tantalised and teased the watching audience, the second exploded into action within seconds.

A searching ball played down Barcelona’s right flank found Ibrahimovic, who had wasted a host of opportunities in the first half including a free kick which is currently still heading into orbit. The Swede looked up, found Almunia inexplicably in no man’s land and produced a deft finish over the head of the goalkeeper and into the net. A previously rocking Emirates audience was silenced in a heartbeat.

Just ten minutes later, you could have been forgiven for thinking the tie was over. Some wonderful play by Xavi, the midfield maestro who continues to haunt English teams in this competition, found Ibrahimovic in a world of his own, free to take a touch before dispatching the ball past Almunia to give the Catalan’s a two goal advantage.

Barcelona, by this time in full pomp, could have wrapped this tie up so very, very easily. Xavi Hernandez is one of the most infuriating players on the planet to watch, not because he’s lacking something, but because he makes every discipline of the game look outrageously simple. There is no known superlative adequate for the midfielder’s performance tonight, and he slipped Lionel Messi in to cut inside on a further occasion, this time the Argentine found his ankles clipped as he entered the box and the chance was squandered.

Wenger had spent the previous hour ranting and raving along the touchline, and you would have forgiven him repeating his “leave me alone” rant at the Barca midfield. Sparked into action, Theo Walcott replaced Bacary Sagna and the game changed in an instant.

Walcott raced past Maxwell, who was fortunate enough to see Arshavin injured early on, and fired directly at Victor Valdes. Fortunately for Arsenal, the ever-dependable stalwart had been hypnotised by the mesmerising football played within his opposite end and the ball crept beneath him and into the goal. A previously sombre crowd erupted into life. Game on.

The goal seemed to have a perplexing effect on Barcelona, so much so that even the ever-cool Guardiola seemed to find himself fidgeting in his seat. Gone was the slick, triangular passing movement, replaced with a clumsy, error-stricken game that played right into Arsenal’s hands for the last 20 minutes.

An end to end tie played at a frenetic pace had developed; Henry coming on to rapturous applause, then a chorus of boos with his first touch. Walcott continued to threaten, using Eboue to twist and turn Maxwell to such an extent that you’d easily mistake him for a ballerina.

Then came the decisive moment and one that threw the whole tie into the balance. A ball fired deep into the Barcelona area found Cesc Fabregas and, knowing full well that Carles Puyol was behind him, he hitched his body in such a motion to collide with the defender.

With the ball heading out of play, a penalty could be considered generous and Busacca hand wrapped the gift by giving the defender his marching orders. Fabregas dusted himself off and fired the penalty past a despairing Victor Valdes.

A fitting finale to a fantastic spectacle and, honestly speaking, no number of words could do the game justice. Mesmerising from start to finish, this was an advert for what the Champions League should be: The finest teams consisting of the finest players, playing slick, adventurous football.

The second tie will suffer because a number of absentees, most notably Fabregas who picked up a shockingly poor yellow card, but if the game is half as good, then we’re still in for a treat.