Arsenal were fortunate to be ending the first period only one goal down. Boasting 68% of the first half possession, Barcelona was able to impose immense pressure on their English rivals. At times, the Blaugrana managed to execute what could be called a counter pressing game. As Arsenal tried to close down Barca and keep their key players quiet – and too a degree they were successful in doing this, with Lauren Koscielny particularly impressive defensively – the Blaugrana would in turn hunt in packs to then close down Arsenal whenever the Gunners managed to poke the ball from the feet of Leo Messi and company. This meant Arsenal found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being constantly hemmed-in in their own half and effectively chasing shadows for many spells on the first 45 minutes.
With their huge amount of possession, Barcelona inevitably created multiple goal scoring opportunities. However, it can be argued that they could be even more of a force were they more potent in front of goal. Messi, David Villa and Eric Abidal could all be accused of lacking urgency when in a goal scoring position by trying to beat one more player, or in Abidal’s case, choosing to turn back away from goal and look for a pass instead of shooting on his strong foot. The impulse to walk the ball into the net is all well and good when the ball ends up in the net, as it did for Messi beautifully on the cusp of half time. However, when goals are needed while Barca sit technically out of the Champions League on aggregate, it would have been beneficial to have combined the lion’s share of possession with more clinical finishing.
The early part of the second half saw Sergio Busquets’ own goal give Arsenal a surprise advantage in the tie. Pep Guardiola once again selected Busquets over natural centre-half Gabriel Milito, probably to avoid playing two left-footed central defenders. The Spaniard coped relatively well with the little attacking threat the Gunners could muster, however was unlucky to see his header glace past Victor Valdes. Nevertheless, Arsenal’s advantage was short lived, and after Robin van Persie’s dismissal the Blaugrana faced a wall of yellow. They were presented with a similar predicament against Inter Milan in last year’s semi-final of the same competition; however Arsenal lacked the rugged stubbornness of Jose Mourinho’s European Champions. Chances aplenty were inevitably crafted, eventually leading to Xavi Hernandez finishing a classic Barca sweeping move orchestrated by Andres Iniesta. A penalty given away by an over-pressurised Arsenal defence gave Guardiola a two-goal advantage; however one Arsenal goal would could still have won the tie. It almost did, and Javier Mascherano capped an impressive anchoring job by foiling Niklas Bendtner when the Dane was through on goal. Defensive jitteriness is always a threat at the back of the minds of Los Cules when watching their team trying to see out a tie. However, the experts in possession football secured the victory in dominating style.