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09 Mar 2011

For three minutes here Arsenal dared to dream. For three minutes after Sergio Busquets' own goal, levelling Lionel Messi's opener and restoring Arsenal's aggregate lead, reverie danced through Arsenal minds. The dream then dissolved into the darkest nightmare.

Controversy and calamity engulfed them after 56 minutes. For all the folly staining Massimo Busacca's decision to administer a second yellow card to Robin van Persie, Arsenal's nemesis was not a merciless Swiss referee who simply didn't understand that the striker was committed to shooting, not kicking the ball away after being given offside.

Arsenal's nemesis was Messi, who tortured their defence and scored twice. Or Arsenal's nemesis was Andres Iniesta, who bullied their midfield with the ball. Or Xavi, who led Barcelona's phenomenal lung-breaking pressing game and also found time to score.

Or Arsenal themselves, guilty of complacency in the group stage, particularly against Braga, so finishing second to Shakhtar Donestk and sending them into the path of a top-seed, top-speed juggernaut.

Or Arsene Wenger himself for starting Tomas Rosicky, not a man for the major occasion. Arsenal can rail against the referee but not the result.

If the heart went out to individuals like Manuel Almunia, who kept the score down, then the head kept being drawn back to the numbers game, the tale of the tape.

The stats told much of the story: Barcelona completed 738 passes to Arsenal's 199. Barcelona recored 10 attempts on goal to Arsenal's none.

More figures; Arsenal, chasing four trophies nine days ago, have now seen that target halved. Wenger's men could go out of their third competition in a fortnight if they lose at Manchester United in the FA Cup on Saturday.

And so a familiar pain returns for Arsenal fans, a feeling of deep frustration brought on by Barcelona, the team of all the talents.

The men from the European capital of football culture had defeated them in the 2006 final and in last season's quarter-finals, so this was the most distressing of Groundhog Days.

For all the complaints about the referee, and the enraged pair of Wenger and Van Persie risked Uefa charges for their comments about Busacca, Arsenal can have no complaints about the scoreline.

Right until the cusp of half-time, Arsenal had held out but those visiting fans who picked up hire cars from Alamo at the airport must have guessed what was coming.

This was the anticipated siege, the expected master-class by those professors of possession Messi and Iniesta, Xavi and David Villa.

For a short period after the kick-off, Arsenal made almost as many fouls as touches. Gael Clichy quickly followed through on Xavi. Two of their defenders, Laurent Koscielny and Bacara Sagna were cautioned within 30 minutes.

Barcelona's formidable high-tempo game saw them pressing hard and high, testing Arsenal's technique under relentless pressure. Xavi and Iniesta kept looking to nick the ball, often working in tandem like an accomplished ambush party.

Possession swiftly regained, some of Barcelona's interplay was mesmerising, refined first touches cushioning the ball towards friendly feet.

Danger always bubbled away. Johan Djourou dispossessed Messi but then slipped, and only Jack Wilshere's sliding tackle stopped the Argentinian's pass reaching Villa.

Samir Nasri was tracking back constantly, diving in to steer the ball away from the rampaging Dani Alves. Back came the Brazilian again, crossing to Villa, whose first touch was poor, for once.

Barcelona were relentless, their pressure precipitating errors of judgement by Arsenal. After 15 minutes, Koscielny brought down Pedro 30 yards out. Alves bent the ball around the human barricade, bringing a stooping stop from Wojciech Szczesny.

The Pole winced as his hands hit the floor, a finger in his left hand dislocating. Barcelona fans bayed their disapproval as Szczesny was attended to by Arsenal's medical staff but his distress was genuine. Almunia jogged on.

The omens suddenly seemed even darker. The Spaniard had conceded seven goals in 200 minutes against Barcelona before this match. The mark stood at 10 in 271 minutes by the end of a chastening evening. Yet Almunia made some important saves.

Until Messi broke through, Arsenal's resilience was admirable. Wilshere was working overtime in the centre, attempting to put out the fires fanned by Xavi and Iniesta.

He showed good skill in turning away from Xavi, demonstrating his lack of awe at this exalted occasion. When Alves then caught Nasri with a dangerous scissors tackle, Wilshere confronted the Brazilian, desisting only when pushed away by Javier Mascherano.

The attacks were coming from all angle, menace now emanating from the defenders. Adriano even struck a post. The game briefly turned niggly when Wilshere fell awkwardly.

Clearly in distress, the England international could have done without Victor Valdes gesticulating his belief that the young Englishman was faking an injury. Van Persie was incensed and soon saw yellow, a costly moment, for a challenge on Alves.

Barcelona's more positive traits were soon on show. Messi tested Almunia but was merely setting his sights.

Three minutes into added time, Cesc Fabregas gave possession away with a crazy back-heel and Barcelona recycled the ball brutally. Iniesta played a sumptuous pass through to Messi, who flicked the ball over Almunia and then volleyed it home. Just returned from injury, Fabregas was way short of his usual high standards here.

Arsenal fought back eight minutes after the break. When Nasri lifted in a corner, Abou Diaby rose high but the ball clipped Busquets, wrong-footing Valdes. Scarcely had Arsenal finished celebrating then Van Persie was dismissed.

Van Persie insisted he did not hear the whistle which TV timed as coming only a second before his shot. Those English referees pilloried in recent weeks might permit themselves a wry smile at confirmation that Continental officials also make errors.

Depleted in numbers if not spirit, Arsenal were soon put the sword. Iniesta and Villa worked the ball beautifully through the middle to Xavi, who kept his composure and footing before beating Almunia. When Pedro was then fouled by Koscielny, Messi converted the calmest of penalties. It was all over bar the shouting at the referee.

Source : telegrapgh.co.uk

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