Arsenal recorded a famous 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium while Shaktar Donetsk defeated AS Roma 3-2 in a shock result at the Stadio Olimpico as the Champions League Round of 16 continued to shine following Wednesday night’s action writes Ger McCarthy.
Round of 16, First leg
Emirates Stadium, London
Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1
Arsenal rebounded from an early David Villa strike to score twice in four minutes and take an unexpected 2-1 lead into the second leg of their Round of 16 tie with Barcelona in three weeks time. The Emirates Stadium witnessed a cracking encounter which ebbed and flowed between two pure footballing sides and fully deserved their victory. An out of sorts Barcelona had no answer to the Gunners second half onslaught and will need to improve of they are to progress at the Camp Nou in the second leg.
The opening 10 minutes saw Arsenal dominate a tentative Barcelona. The Gunners pushed high up the pitch and forced errors from the visitors’ full backs Alves and Maxwell. Fabregas’ delightful chip forced Valdes to bat away a Van Persie rocket early on yet for all Arsenal’s territorial dominance the Catalans remained calm and slowly worked their way into the tie.
Lionel Messi drew the first yellow card of the evening by forcing Alex Song into a wild lunge but the diminutive Argentinean wasted a glorious opportunity to break the deadlock when put clean through on the quarter hour. Messi slipped an effort under the advancing Arsenal goalkeeper in a one on one but inexplicably missed the target from 6 yards out. That wasted chance reinvigorated the visitors however and Arsenal were indebted to the determination of Jack Wilshire whose timely interceptions and committed tackling stemmed the Barcelona attacks for a time.
Theo Walcott was at the hub of Arsenal’s best moves but the home side were glaringly guilty of failing to utilise the England international’s pace on enough occasions during the first 45 minutes. A lightening break from the hosts in the 25th minute saw Fabregas put through but Abidal’s flick took the Arsenal Captain’s cross come shot away from the head of the waiting Van Persie.
The Gunners paid for that miss within a minute when Leo Messi surged forward and slotted a pass in behind a static Arsenal back four looking for offside. Glichy was slow to react and played David Villa onside and the Spanish hit man latched onto a perfectly weighted pass before calmly placing the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Arsenal were rocked by the concession of that opening goal and only the quick reactions of Szczesny denied Pedro from close range. Once again the midfield duo of Fabregas and Wilshire led the Arsenal fight back and one perfectly timed pass from the England midfielder should have seen Van Persie hit the target but the Dutchman dallied and fired wide from just inside the box.
Iniesta and an out of sorts Nasri both went in the Italian referee’s notebook as Barcelona closed out the half with a mesmeric demonstration of tiki-taka football. A series of intricate one touch passing had the Arsenal defence reeling with Xavi and Iniesta orchestrating proceedings from the centre of the park. When Arsenal did gain possession they couldn’t find a way through the Barcelona back four for whom Pique excelled in the absence of regular centre-back partner Puyol.
Messi had the ball in the net shortly before half time following another flowing Barca move but the effort was correctly ruled out for offside. Arsenal hardly helped their cause with Ebuoe and Glichy guilty of giving the ball away in their own half but as it was the home side went in 1-0 behind at the break without Barcelona ever hitting the heights of previous memorable European performances.
The Gunners restarted in positive fashion with Van Persie and Wilshire working Valdes in the Barcelona goal. An increased effort in midfield saw Arsenal take the game to their opponents but in the blink of an eye Barcelona’s click passing moved the ball deep into Gunner’s territory. The home side’s lack of cutting edge was down to an inability to work the ball to Van Persie in enough danger areas while the lack of an out-and-out striker to play off the Dutch international also blunted Arsenal’s foray’s forward.
Walcott remained Arsenal’s best outlet moving forward but the lack of a quality final ball from the English winger saw a succession of attacks flounder from decent positions. Barcelona appeared content to sit on their lead and hit the home side on the counter-attack and from two such breaks Lionel Messi wasted another clutch of chances to put the tie beyond doubt.
Arsenal introduced Arshavin for Song in a positive move from Wenger while Guardiola withdrew goal scorer Villa for defensive midfielder Keita in a change which seemed to suggest ‘what we have we hold’. The Emirates Stadium was frustrated for much of the second half with their side’s inability to carve out a clear cut chance and the visitors’ penchant for retaining possession for long periods. A free-kick from Glichy which the French international walloped from deep in the Arsenal half all the way into the hands of Valdes at the other end of the pitch typified another frustrating waste of possession.
This Round of 16 tie looked to be slipping away from the Gunners until Barcelona’s decision to drop back and ease off their pacy counter-attacks invited the Premier League side to come forward. How the Catalans would pay for that fateful decision.
The arrival of Bendtner in place of Walcott appeared Wenger’s final throw of the dice but within minutes Arsenal were level. Glichy’s delightful chip over Pique released Van Persie and some poor keeping’ from Valdes at his near post allowed the Dutch striker to net from the narrowest of angles. The equaliser was no more than the Gunners’ deserved as Barcelona’s poor second half showing invited the home side forward.
The Emirates was absolutely rocking 4 minutes later when another Arsenal breakaway saw Nasri race free only to cut the ball back into the path of the in-rushing Arshavin who buried the ball into the back of net from just inside the penalty area.
Bendtner went close shortly after as a clearly rattled looking Barcelona finally roused themselves back into life with Alves forcing Szczesny into a smart save before the Arsenal goalkeeper recovered to smother the Brazilian’s attempted cross to the feet of Messi.
The referee brought an end to proceedings shortly afterwards and although it is only half time in the tie Arsenal have every right to feel delighted to have defeated one of the best footballing sides in the world.
With Jack Wilshire at the helm and in his current form Arsenal will travel to Camp Nou in three weeks time with renewed hope following a terrific and fully deserved 2-1 first leg victory. The Gunners never gave up and struck twice after Barcelona wasted a plethora of chances to kill off the tie. It is still only half time but if Arsenal can grab an away goal then Barcelona will have to be at their very best to see off the Gunners.
Round of 16, First leg
Stadio Olimpico, Rome
AS Roma 2 Shaktar Donetsk 3
Roma suffered a surprise 3-2 defeat at home to Shaktar Donetsk in the Stadio Olimpico to heap even more pressure on already beleaguered Roma manager Claudio Ranieri. The Ukrainian side entered the tie in good health having won five of their six group games to finish ahead of Arsenal and qualify for the last 16 as group winners. Roma’s stuttering domestic form had seen the Totti-led side slip away from the title race in recent weeks and fall as low as eighth in the Serie A standings.
A confident start from the hosts saw Vucinic test the Shaktar defence early on. Burdisso was guilty of a glaring miss with a free header from a Totti corner flying wide of the upright when the Roma defender really should have scored. The hosts continued to press with Totti and Vucinic causing constant headaches for the visiting back four and eventually Roma were rewarded for their excellent start with Perotta heading in off a defender at the far post as the Shaktar defence stood still.
Disaster struck the Italian side – who had previously been coasting – when the Ukrainians’ levelled within a minute of falling behind. A quick break from the back saw the ball drop to the feet of Jadson 20 yards from goal and two deflections later Shaktar were level thanks to the Brazilian’s thundering drive. Roma attempted a fight back but another lightening breakaway in the 35th minute involving Jadson once again saw Shaktar work the ball to Douglas Costa who in turn curled a wonderful effort past the stranded Roma goalkeeper for a 2-1 lead. Vucinic replied instantly for the hosts but the Macedonian’s long range effort shaved the post before drifting wide.
A horrible night got even worse for Roma when a Jon Arne Riise mistake saw Luiz Adriano capitalise to hammer home a third goal from just inside the area to give Doni no chance and a fully deserved half time 3-1 lead. A chorus of boos showered down on top of the Roma players and management at the end of the first half. The home supporters’ anger abated little at the start of the second period as Roma looked to somehow claw back a 3-1 deficit.
Jeremy Menez produced a wonder strike from 25 yards out to bring AS Roma back to within a goal of Donetsk just past the hour mark. It was a magnificent strike on the run from Menez but it proved the final goal of a cracking tie as Shaktar continued to pour forward. Only the brilliance of Roma net minder Doni prevented Shaktar from adding to their total as time and again the Ukrainian Champions carved open a porous Roma back four. The remainder of the tie saw Roma throw greater numbers forward in search of an equaliser but even 9 corners failed to conjure up a leveller and Shaktar held on for a deserved 3-2 victory.
Claudio Ranieri’s men face a monumental struggle to qualify for the quarter finals of the Champions League following Shaktar Donetsk’s shock 3-2 first leg victory. Take nothing away from the Ukrainian’s whose three Brazilians shone in a fully merited victory having capitalised on some slack Italian defending. Three away goals has – barring disaster – secured Donetsk’s passage to the quarter finals, the only question remaining is whether or not Ranieri is manager when Roma visit in three weeks time.