Barcelona and Shaktar Donetsk are the first two clubs through to the 2011 UEFA Champions League quarter finals following a night of drama in the Camp Nou and Donbass Arena Round of 16 second leg ties writes Back Page Football contributor Ger McCarthy.
Round of 16, Second leg
Camp Nou, Barcelona
Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate)
Where to begin with this memorable Champions League tie? Let’s start with the most important statistic: Barcelona are through to the last eight whilst Arsenal have been knocked out of the competition for the second year running by the Catalan side. Barca were in irresistible form last night with Lionel Messi scoring twice and taking his tally to an astonishing 45 goals in 40 matches. Arsenal may have played second fiddle to their hosts for much of the tie in terms of ball retention but the Gunners were still only a goal away from going through right up to the final whistle.
Arsene Wenger can take heart from that statistic and also the fact Jack Wilshere produced another stunning individual performance. Manuel Almunia performed heroically between the sticks once introduced for the injured Sczcesny and up until the ludicrous sending off of Robin Van Persie the Gunners’ were still very much in the tie despite living off meagre possession.
Alas none of those points are likely to ease the pain of a frustrated Arsenal squad on the flight home, especially Cesc Fabregas who cut a forlorn figure on the sideline after being taken off. The Arsenal skipper played well (and covered more ground than any other Arsenal player) but was obviously curtailed by a hamstring injury, never hitting the heights of previous swashbuckling displays. The decision to send off Van Persie for kicking the ball away – a second yellow – beggared belief with such a cauldron of intense noise surrounding the pitch.
The Dutch international had every right to feel aggrieved for being dismissed having attempted a shot barely one second after being flagged and whistled up for offside. Van Persie’s reaction said it all with his arms outstretched and baffling look towards referee Busacca but his after match comments, however sincere, will get him into trouble with UEFA. Arsene Wenger too will likely face sanctions for his approach and accosting of the match officials in the tunnel after the full time whistle but the Arsenal manager deserves credit for fulfilling his media duties unlike other Premier League managers / clubs.
The simple truth that faces Wenger and his team this morning is that irrespective of the wrongful Van Persie dismissal the North London club came up short against a Barcelona side that must now be ranked amongst the best ever to grace a European Cup. Without the services of three first choice defenders the Catalans set about passing their opponents into submission and long before Messi’s magical opener deep into first half stoppage time the dye had already been cast with some mesmeric inter-play between Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Arsenal lost their goalkeeper after barely 20 minutes to a finger injury although the visitors’ replacement Almunia would go on to produce a string of terrific saves in a torrid second half and in truth, the Spaniard kept the score down.
The opening goal was pure brilliance but its genesis came from an uncharacteristic error from Fabregas. The Arsenal Captain attempted an ill-advised back heel on the edge of his own penalty area which Barcelona quickly pounced on and worked the ball to Messi just inside the box. The diminutive Argentinean took a few steps past a defender before nonchalantly flicking the ball over Almunia and finishing to the net before the ball hit the ground. Pure class from a footballing genius.
The Gunners were offered a life-line in the 53rd minute when replacement centre-half Busquets headed into his own net from a Nasri corner. Barcelona responded in typical fashion with Messi going close before Van Persie was dismissed by Busacca and Arsenal’s battle instantly became an uphill struggle. The visitors endured a torrid period of pressure with only the brilliance of Almunia preventing a cricket score until Arsenal’s brave defence was eventually breached by a magnificent goal in the 69th minute.
Barcelona carved open Arsenal’s back four with a slick, slicing move through the heart of their defence. Iniesta’s surge found Villa, who found Xavi, who found the net with an impudent flick. Magic. 2-1 quickly became 3-1 when Koscielny hacked down Pedro and Lionel Messi left Almunia rooted to his line with a confident finish from 12 yards. From that point onwards Barcelona were guilty of wasting a plethora of chances through a combination of poor finishing and some dogged Arsenal defending. To their credit Arsenal kept surging forward in the knowledge that – amazingly – a late strike would have taken them through on the away goals rule.
Bendtner had been introduced for that specific purpose but the brash Danish international will have nightmares about a miss-controlled Wilshere through ball with three minutes remaining. Had the substitute gained control of the pass he would have had only Alves to beat from 10 yards. As it was the Trojan efforts of Mascherano getting back to put the striker off did just enough and the ball and Arsenal’s last hopes bobbled away to safety.
Arsenal have little time to lick their wounds with a mouth-watering FA Cup quarter final clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday evening. There are 10 games left to overtake United in the Premier League title race and injuries aside the North Londoners still have a great chance of pulling off a domestic league and cup double. A prolonged hangover from a second consecutive Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona coupled with a mounting injury list are the only two factors which could yet unhinge the Gunner’s season.
Barcelona move forward to the last eight of the Champions League with great confidence and the return of Puyol and Pique will strengthen their defence. Currently top of La Liga and looking like they are unlikely to be challenged by bitter rivals Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola may also be afforded the luxury of resting key players in the run-in to the final rounds of the Champions League. In short, on their current form no one will want to draw them in the last eight let alone the semi-finals.
Round of 16, Second leg
Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Shaktar Donetsk 3 AS Roma 0 (Barcelona win 6-2 on aggregate)
There was little to choose between the sides in front of a packed Donbass Arena until the 18th minute of this Round of 16 second leg when a speculative centre from Willian was allowed roll all the way into the Roma net by a blindsided Doni. Donetsk settled with the aid of that strike and a comfortable 4-0 aggregate lead now behind them but it was the Italians who were guilty of wasting a golden opportunity to get back in the game shortly afterwards.
Howard Webb awarded Roma a penalty following a period of sustained pressure but goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov guessed correctly and pushed away Marco Borriello’s strike from 12 yards to the delight of the home fans. Any chance Roma had of making a comeback was undone by the foolishness of centre-back Phillipe Mexes. The French international was correctly booked for a silly off the ball trip on Jadson before the break and then just four minutes into the second half for a badly timed lunge on Luiz Adriano.
The tie was effectively over following Mexes’ dismissal and the Italians did little to endear themselves to the locals with some petty off the ball fouling which could have resulted in a couple of more sending-off. Shaktar secured their historic passage into the last eight of the Champions League with the goal of the night when Willian struck for a second time after 58 minutes.
The Brazilian collected a poor Roma clearance from a Shaktar corner and steadied himself before curling a beauty into the top corner for a wonderful goal. Substitute Eduardo put the icing on the cake three minutes into injury time and the Ukrainian fans celebrated a memorable night at the Donbass Arena with qualification for the Champions League quarter finals.
Shaktar Donetsk proudly takes their place amongst the last eight of the Champions League following a richly deserved aggregate victory over a disappointing AS Roma. The Ukrainian Champions will fear no-one with their formidable record at the Donbass Arena and with Mircea Lucescu’s side sitting comfortably atop their domestic league Shaktar will fancy upsetting the odds against whomever they face in the quarter finals.
AS Roma are out of the Champions League following two disappointing performances against Donetsk and face a battle to regain a place in next year’s premier European competition. With just ten domestic fixtures remaining new manager Vincenzo Montella faces an uphill struggle to overtake Napoli, Lazio and Udinese if the Giallorossi are to return to Champions League action next season.