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17 Feb 2011

Arsenal struck twice in five minutes late on as they staged a stirring comeback to beat Champions League favourites Barcelona on a night to savour at the Emirates.

Barcelona looked on course to take a precious lead into the second leg of this last 16 clash at the Nou Camp as they protected the first-half advantage given to them by David Villa.

The Catalans wasted chances to strengthen their position, with Lionel Messi an unlikely culprit, leaving the door open for the Gunners to keep their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals alive in spectacular fashion.

Robin van Persie equalised 12 minutes from time with a shot that somehow eluded Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes at his near post before substitute Andrey Arshavin sent Arsenal's fans into ecstasy with a crisp finish that gives them a slender lead to take to Spain.

The Premier League outfit were attempting to follow in the footsteps of arch-rivals Tottenham after their magnificent win against AC Milan in the San Siro on Tuesday - and they were not to be outdone as they made it a memorable 24 hours for north London in Champions League combat.

Arsene Wenger's side were intent on proving a point after losing 6-3 to Barcelona over two legs at the quarter-final stage last season and they achieved their objective without sacrificing their long-held principles.

For all the talk of Arsenal attempting to make it a physical confrontation with the lavishly gifted Barca stars, the Gunners continued to play their trademark passing game and reaped a rich dividend in a frantic finale.

Barcelona, ironically, looked in control as the game entered its final phase, but once Van Persie levelled the mood inside the Emirates helped sweep Arsenal to victory.

Barca coach Pep Guardiola will still be confident his side can overturn a narrow deficit in the return, but the Gunners now have something to protect and will travel with the confidence this triumph will have given them.

Jack Wilshere was the symbol of Arsenal's development since the teams last met with a performance of composure that made a nonsense of his tender teenage years. Meanwhile Arsenal's resilience and dogged determination as Barcelona dominated possession for lengthy spells met with Wenger's approval.

Wenger described it as "a special night" - and Arsenal's manager must take great credit for a relentlessly positive attitude on and off the pitch, introducing Arshavin for Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner for Theo Walcott even though his side were behind.

The Gunners boss insisted the La Liga leaders remain favourites to progress but Arsenal will feel they have applied pressure to Barcelona as they carry a weight of expectation into the second leg.

Arsenal were determined to guard against the type of chasing they suffered in the opening half at the Emirates when the sides met last season and this time around they more than held their own against the Catalan artists.

Samir Nasri's availability after a hamstring injury provided a real bonus for the Gunners and they started with admirable attacking intent. A wonderful moment of invention from Cesc Fabregas, lifting the ball over the Barca defence, forged an early opening for Van Persie but keeper Valdes was alert and made a crucial block.

Barcelona's response was the lacerating passage of play that has become their trademark. Villa sent Messi clear, but the little Argentine over-elaborated with a routine finish and not only guided his effort over Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny but wide of the far post.

It was a moment that was met with an audible gasp of relief around the Emirates - but it was the clearest indication yet that Barcelona were finding their feet after the intensity of Arsenal's start.

Andres Iniesta almost put Villa in on goal before Messi was again wasteful with another chance, tamely chipping into the hands of Szczesny despite having the time and space he usually relishes.

As the game swung from end to end it needed a desperate headed clearance from Eric Abidal as Van Persie closed in on Fabregas' cross, but the Barca pressure was mounting and the reward came after 26 minutes.

Messi, inevitably, was the creator with a pass that cut Arsenal open, leaving the lethal Villa to stride forward and score with typical expertise.

As Wenger's side struggled to recover Szczesny did well to block Pedro at his near post before the Gunners broke the Barcelona stranglehold and Van Persie should have done better than to fire wildly off target when well placed.

Barcelona had the ball in the net before the conclusion of a thrilling first 45 minutes when Messi headed in after Szczesny blocked Villa but he was clearly offside.

Both sides traded blows again as the second period unfolded, Barcelona appealing in vain for a penalty as Villa collided with Laurent Koscielny and Van Persie again testing Valdes from the edge of the area.

Messi had mixed brilliance with some uncharacteristic profligacy in front of goal. He should have extended Barca's lead when he was released inside the area after 67 minutes but shot into the side netting.

Arsenal stuck to their task, despite Barcelona enjoying prolonged periods of possession, and they drew level with 12 minutes left. Van Persie's low shot from an acute angle carried pace and power, but Valdes was desperately at fault as he stood motionless as the Netherlands striker's effort flew in at his near post.

Barcelona were suddenly rocking and Wenger's team turned the tie on its head and, roared on by feverish backing on a thunderous night, scored the winner when Arshavin arrived on the end of Nasri's right-flank cross to steer a precise finish past Valdes.

Arshavin showed the other side of his game when a moment of defensive vulnerability almost let in Dani Alves in stoppage time - but Arsenal survived to keep their Champions League hopes alive.

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