Champions League: Van Persie sees red as Barcelona beat Arsenal again
Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate): It was the game that Robin van Persie was never supposed to be fit to play in, and in the end last night, it will be remembered for his premature departure rather than the fact that he miraculously stepped out of the treatment room to try to save Arsenal’s Champions League lives.
Van Persie was sent off before the hour and Arsenal are out the Champions League for a second year running at the hands of Barcelona.
The second yellow card that did for Van Persie was harsh — he was booked for shooting at goal just a second after the Swiss referee had blown for offside.
But it does not detract from the fact that Arsenal were hit by a hurricane of attacking football.
When Van Persie was dismissed Arsenal had dragged themselves back to 1-1 thanks to Sergio Busquets’ own goal.
At that point they were going through to the quarter-finals, albeit having had to defend for the vast majority of the game.
Would they have lost the tie even with Van Persie?
Like the effect of the dismissal of Jens Lehmann in the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona, that question is destined to hang in the air for ever.
What is not in doubt is that the home side were magnificently ruthless in their attacks, especially against the 10 men of Arsenal, and were it not for Manuel Almunia’s saves this could well have been a drubbing.
In the end, there were two goals from Lionel Messi, the first peerless, the second a penalty for which Laurent Koscielny should really have been given his second yellow. Xavi scored Barcelona’s second.
Cesc Fabregas, in his first game at the Nou Camp, was a major disappointment. Nicklas Bendtner, a late substitute, missed a chance to win the tie. Arsène Wenger looked furious.
For long periods of the first half, and as the pressure intensified towards the end of it, Arsenal were forced to live on their defensive instincts, a six-man back line and a little bit of good fortune.
The match had been simmering and by the time Messi scored the equaliser the relations between the two sets of players were bad.
Aggravated by the mêlée after a foul by Javier Mascherano on Jack Wilshere, Van Persie went on an ill-advised search for retribution.
His hand, thrust into the face of Dani Alves, was dangerous but he got away with a booking and for the first time Arsenal looked like they might be losing their concentration. The late goal, in time added on at the end of the first half, was a debilitating blow.
Yes, at times they had been lucky but there was also an inspired performance from Johan Djourou at centre-back who, along with Koscielny, had thrown himself in at the feet of Barcelona’s scurrying attackers and come out with the ball time and again.
For much of the latter period of the first half it was hard to remember the last time Arsenal had made it out of their own half.
To add to his anxiety, Wenger had to replace his goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who injured his left hand saving an innocuous free-kick from Alves, with 19 minutes played. His replacement, Almunia, had not played a game in the Premier League or Champions League since September.
The most spectacular penalty-box tackles came from Djourou who timed a beauty on Xavi in the 28th minute as the midfielder broke through.
Having been beaten once by Messi three minutes later, Djourou recovered in time to tackle him in the second phase of the dribble.
At least Arsenal were hanging on to their advantage, it seemed.
The Barcelona left-back Adriano hit the outside of the post on 36 minutes.
The real threat, however, came down the middle with Xavi and Andres Iniesta picking out the runs of Messi and David Villa.
So it transpired in injury-time when, of all people, Fabregas gave up possession with a silly back heel deep in his own half.
Iniesta threaded the ball into Messi’s path and flicked the ball over the diving Almunia before volleying in at close range. It was a beautiful finish.
However, the own goal scored by Busquets with eight minutes of the half rather threw a spanner in Barca’s works.
On a rare forage forward, Samir Nasri did well to win a corner and, worried by Abou Diaby at the near post, Busquets headed into his own net.
Given this gift of a goal, one which they scarcely deserved, Arsenal were then dealt the blow of Van Persie’s red card.
He should, of course, know better than to play on after the whistle but it came little more than a second before he kicked it and this is a very loud stadium.
That the 10 men held out so long was thanks to Almunia’s saves and the same determination that had seen them through most of the first half. It could not last, though.
The second Barcelona goal came from Iniesta’s ball through which was neatly finished by Xavi via a deflection off Bacary Sagna.
Koscielny gave away a penalty on 69 minutes after fouling Pedro Rodriguez. Messi tucked away the penalty so easily and, Bendtner’s late chance aside, it was over.