Once upon a time… in the midst of Barcelona’s World domination in the early 2010s, Robin Van Persie’s Arsenal were drawn to face a familiar enemy. Their meeting in the 2009-2010 Champions League season had ended with a humiliating defeat for Arsenal as they saw Messi score four goals at Camp Nou. They certainly craved revenge and wanted to book a consecutive trip to the Champions League quarterfinals. The first leg of the Arsenal vs Barcelona rematch of 2010 definitely shocked the World of soccer to say the least.
Barcelona had been rolling during the 2010-2011 season both domestically and internationally. Thrashed arch-rivals Real Madrid 5-0 in front of their home fans, sat on top of the league, coasted through the group stage all while playing some of the most beautiful football anyone had ever seen. A lot has been said in recent years about the brilliance and lethalness of Barcelona’s MSN. However, some forget about their predecessors. Back in 2010-2011, Barcelona had Messi, Villa and Pedro leading the attacks. Perhaps not as magical, but still more than capable of winning a game by themselves. Barcelona’s lineup that night was a scary one to say the least.
Arsenal hosted the champions of Spain on a cold February 16th, 2011. Their starting center back duo of Koscielny and Djourou, both 25 and 24 respectively, had a massive task in front of them. His name was Lionel Messi. Aside from their defense, it was one of the best lineups Arsenal has had in years. A young Jack Wilshere and Alex Song as double holding midfielders. Captain Cesc Fabregas as an attacking mid, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott on the wings. Of course, their main star Robin Van Persie up top.
Within just a couple of minutes into the game, Nasri whipped in a free kick from a dangerous area. The Barcelona defense was unable to clear the ball and it trickled into the path of Alex Song but the african midfielder just missed it. Song was ready to strike the ball with his foot but a wicked bounced caught him off guard. He was unable to header it with his bleached-blonde head.
Two minutes later, Theo Walcott put on his best Maradona impersonation as he dribbled around the Barcelona defense like a bunch of cones at the training ground. He laid it off for Fabregas who spotted the run of Van Persie and played him a clever little chip but Van Persie was unable to beat Valdes. Arsenal insisted but the scored remained level.
In the 15th minute, the Catalan side began exploiting the space behind Arsenal’s defense. On a perfectly timed counter attack, David Villa played the ball into space for a flashing Messi. He waited and teased Szczęsny until the keeper was beaten. A play that we we’re all used to seeing but this time, with a different ending as Messi’s chip went off the target.
They would eventually get their do-over but this time, they wouldn’t forgive the Arsenal defense. Messi got the ball just almost around the half and dragged three defenders around him which left David Villa wide open. Another precise through ball left the #7 1v1 against the keeper again. This time, the spaniard would put it in the back of the net. 1-0 Barcelona and they had a critical away goal.
The majority of that first half was nothing but counterattacks from both teams. A style that goes against Barcelona’s ideology but nonetheless it’s a style which they tend to adapt whenever they play english teams. Both teams had opportunities to score including a goal by Messi which was later ruled offsides. At the end of the first half, the score remained 1-0 for the Catalanes in their turquoise kit.
The second half was more of the same for both teams. A fast paced game where both teams attempted to exploit their opponent’s back line. Both teams again created more chances but were unable to finish the last step: putting the ball in the back of the net.
As the game was taking its final breaths and the ball was making its final rolls, Gaël Glichy spotted Van Persie in between Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal and played him behind the snoozing Barcelona defense. Without even controlling the ball, Van Persie lifted his head and spotted Valdes cheating inside and leaving his near post unmarked. From what appeared to be an impossible angle, the dutchman sneaked his shot past Valdes’ near post and into the goal. A goal that brought back life to the Emirates as fans began believing Arsenal could do more than just tie this game.
With the intensity reaching a new high, Arsenal began to attack the demoralized Barcelona defense. Within minutes, they completed the impossible. With seven minutes left in the game, Arsenal again got behind the Barcelona backline. This time it was Nasri who kicked it into fourth gear. He held the ball as he waited for his teammates to join in the attack and sent in a cross to the far post. Arsenal substitute Arshavin met it one touch and tucked it away in the far post leaving Valdes looking like a statute.
A 2-1 thrilling comeback for the hosts who had gone against all the odds and beat the mighty Barcelona. The victory brought in a sense of hopefulness around Emirates and had fans actually believing it could be their year. It brought back joy and enthusiasm to fans who had little reasons to celebrate since the departure of club legend Thierry Henry in 2008.
Barcelona would end up winning the second leg 3-1 and advancing past Arsenal and into the quarterfinals. 2011 marked the year in which Barcelona won their 4th Champions League title l. Meanwhile, Arsenal has made it out of their group every year since but haven’t been able to move past the Round of 16. This year, they’ll hope to produce the same magic as that February night in 2011 if they want to defeat the mighty Bayern Munich.
It’s no secret that Barcelona has historically dominated Arsenal in their Champions League features. Arsenal was again defeated in 2016 at the hands of the defending champions of Spain. Regardless of what happens in the future, that Arsenal vs Barcelona match in 2011 will live in the memory of fans forever.