Hello and welcome to one of the occasions of the season so far. It's Barcelona versus Arsenal at what I now feel obliged by the current vogue to refer to as the "Camp Now". What a finely-poised game lies in store for us.*
*Provided Barcelona don't score in the first ten minutes during what is certain to be a customarily migranous opening blizzard of crazy-passing attacking swarm thereby rendering the whole thing an increasingly pitiful exhibition of frenzied and fruitless ball-chasing, red cards, touchline-stomping and gold-leaf Euro-showboating.
The teams are in:
Arsenal Szczesny, Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Diaby, Wilshere, Rosicky, Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie
Barcelona Valdes Dani Alves, Busquets, Abidal, Adriano; Mascherano; Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, David Villa, Messi.
So... The big news is that Robin van Persie starts for Arsenal. How long will he last? Is he still broken? Will his twig-like exoskeleton withstand the impact of at least 90 minutes spent running around chasing Xavi about the place, while being expected to hare instantly into counter-attack mode on the three or four occasions Arsenal actually nick the ball back?
For Barcelona Busquets plays at the back and Mascherano comes in to foul people in midfield. You know, take away the four superlatively world class players ... and it's not that scary a Barcelona team really.
Arsenal, realistically, have very little chance of winning the tie. Barcelona always score - and they only need to score. Barcelona might easily have won the first game. Barcelona are also the best team in the world; and the best team in the world in a manner that makes Arsenal's own tippy-tappy excellence seem like a flimsy pastiche, an own brand box of cornflakes, JLS next to the Jackson Five, Jamie Redknapp and Louise pretending to be Posh and Becks in a Thomson holiday ad.
There are, though, some reasons for optimism if you're supporting the underdog.
1 Barcelona are under more pressure tonight. They can't go out here. It doesn't fit with the grandiose narrative of their own modern myth.
2 Barcelona looked tired in the second half at the Emirates. It's a straw to clutch at. Arsenal may have an edge in pace and stamina.
3 Van Persie is pretending to be fit. This is a big deal. Puyol and Pique are wonderful defenders but they aren't playing.
5 Niclas Bendtner scored a hat-trick against Leyton Orient the other day.
On the other hand, for the neutral this really is a win-win match. Either the slightly smug tippety-tappety morally righteous team loses. Or, in an alternative scenario, the slightly smug tippety-tappety morally righteous team loses. Similarly, you get to see more of the best and most gratuitously skilled players in either the Spanish or English leagues progress. Rishabh writes from New York: "By "four" superlatively world class players you certainly mean Alves, Busquets, Masch and Pedro... if so I agree, the rest of the team does indeed not look very scary..."
Tim Smith writes: "Shouldn't the players have to wear beads in honor of Fat Tuesday?" It's fat Tuesday every week in my house. Here are the "benches" by the way:
Barca subs Pinto, Bojan, Keita, Milito, Maxwell, Afellay, Thiago.
Arsenal subs Almunia, Denilson, Squillaci, Arshavin, Eboue, Chamakh, Bendtner.
What a cosmopolitan crew they are.
Jonah Gadsby is being a Jonah. "Barcelona's habit of playing midfielders in defence will do them more harm than good," he wails. Jason Graff writes: "The answer to who plays football in the MOST correct fashion will soon have an answer." That is a question that can only ever be answered by a two-legged tie between Barcelona and prime-form Stoke City, with the games spread between a wet, freezing night in the Potteries and a balmy Mediterranean evening, the first refereed by a a Rugby League official, the second by a netball instructor. Only then will we know The Answer.
Shooby Taylor is probably right. "This game looks to be Barca's for the taking - unless thy decide to utilise their arrogant "send everyone forward because we'll never lose possession" tactic this time." Lack of pace rather than arrogance last time. I believe Arsenal "done" them fair and square on the break.
Ethan Dean-Richards has important news: "It's such a big game tonight that I'm actually considering giving my glasses a wipe so I can watch it without the smudge. I will miss Smudgey though." Maybe you could put Smudgey back when Bendtner comes on for Van Persie after 20 minutes. It is exciting though isn't it? I sense that we are in for a cracker. And my sense is never wrong*.
* Disclaimer: my sense is usually wrong
Tony Demetriou writes: "Rosicky to get the winner tonight. Diaby will protect our already incredible defence inclusive of defensive kingpin Koscielny and rock solid Clichy. Goodbye Barcelona. You don't often get to face the might of the Carling Cup runners up." I think Diaby is the key. He really can go any way.
Mike Down has some more reasons to be cheerful. But not many:
6. Bentner might not play.
7. Arsenal might play like Inter Milan (last years vintage of course)
8. I think I've just let go of my last straw
Roy Allen is averting his perfumed nostrils and gluing himself to his plasma for the next two hours: "We already know 'the answer'. There is no doubt that playing skilful, creative, thoughtful football is a greater challenge than hurling the ball into the box hoping it bounces off someone's knee in the right direction. Of course, if you prefer to watch lump-it-up-in-the-air football that's up to you. Some people prefer Motorhead to Mozart. But not many try to pretend that Lemmy's boys are 'real music' and that Mozart stuff a bunch of fancy-dan scrapey-scrapey." Such originality! Who'd have known?
Letu Yang: "9. Today is the International Women's Day." No doubt Arsenal will take great heart.
Leon Pidgeon has this: "Got to be the weakest defence Barca have had out all season. Shows how much Pep thinks of Maxwell who's on the bench and you have to say the Arsenal bench is a lot stronger than the Barca one." The bench... Only useful up to a point. The teams are out and the Camp Nou looks absolutely stunning as ever. What an occasion. Lots of handshakes between the players. All of them matey, none of them finger-breakers.
1 min Barcelona kick us off and immediately hoof the ball out of play on the left wing, thereby gaining ground and sending forward the big men for a long throw into the box. Not really. Instead they pass it about expertly in midfield for a bit. Finally Clichy puts in an early reducer on Xavi. Might have been booked for that. Really clumsy tackle.
3 mins The ball so far belongs to Barca. They're keeping it quite nicely in their own half and around the halfway line. Arsenal are playing a "high line" thus far, so it's all quite condensed. Not too much frantic pressing, but lots of bodies together in midfield.
4 mins First chance, lovely run by Pedro in behind Koscielny but he gets back to block the shot. Arsenal just about clear the corner. It's going to be a taught, tense old night. And yes, Gibbs isn't playing as we had it earlier. Clichy is at left back. I blame modern communication technology.
7 mins A nice little break by the widely-maligned Rosicky on the right comes to nothing but he'll take some heart from that. And Alves has just hacked his way though the ankles of Fabregas. Cloggers, this lot. Play the game Barcelona. Jusint Kavanagh argues: "If Roy Allen is comparing Barcelona to Mozart, then Arsene Wegner must surely be their Salieri, the not-quite-as-talented contemporary who ends up in a lunatic asylum because his work is never quite as good, or quite as popular…unless there's a plot change tonight of course…" He was in Scarface Salieri. Got hung from a helicopter. Horrible really.
9 mins Lovely surge past Diaby by Iniesta but he can't get the return pass. Diaby looked totally lost there. Barca have been cautious so far, not exactly flat, but not the devastating fast start I expected. Saying that they'll probably score two in three minutes now.
11 mins Arsenal keep the ball for a bit. The Barca fans whistle as though this is somehow dull or unsporting or not really football. Comes to nothing in the end but a period of calm here and Messi has been ominously quiet so far. JR Flanders bleurghs :"I just don't feel good with Rosicky in there. Arsenal need to play high, and he is woefully unable to play as part of a trap, or at least he has been this season. Any thoughts?" Diaby. He's the worry. Rosicky has played in these big games before. He'll be ok I reckon.
13 mins Great defending by first Koscielny then Wilshere as Arsenal somehow recover from Djourou giving the ball straight to Messi 25 yards out. That's not a good idea. Nasri then nicks the ball away from Alves just as he's about to get in on the right. Fine margins for Arsenal in defence. And there's the first desperate hoof away of the evening from Koscielny. It's suddenly got a bit like that. The tiki-taka is ticking.
16 mins An amusing rugby tackle on Pedro by Koscielny and he's booked. Not good news this early in the game. Barca have a free kick. Maybe they'll send the big men up from ... oh. Instead Alves blasts it at Szczesny and he fields it quite easily.
17 mins Szczesny has hurt his finger. Two men are currently wiggling it and frowning. Lots of whistling. He seemed to bend it back catching that ball. Never mind though. Almunia's on the bench! And look he's coming on now.
19 mins So Almunia is on. How bizarre. Arsenal also lose a sub for later in the game when they're all knackered, injured, confused, dizzy etc. The last time Almunia played here with Albacete they lost 5-0. Just saying.
21 mins Lovely work from Diaby in the middle of the field almost puts Nasri in on the right. He has sublime footwork at times. He can dribble like a winger and tackle like a goalkeeper. You have to say Arsenal have done nothing in attack so far. They're still winning though. On the Camp Nou Julian Menz writes: "The Camp Nou is magnificent, but the atmosphere is non-existent (95 000 people and less noise than a Conference match). It should make Arsenal feel right at home." I'm not sure about that. Was pretty loud when I was there. Any thoughts?
23 mins I have a feeling Mascherano really takes the verve out of that midfield. He is not a Barca passer no matter how you look at it. But wait! Here's Messi playing in Adriano, but his cross evades Villa in the middle. that was more like it. When Messi gets the ball everything changes. Alves has now gone right through the back of Nasri and got away with it. Wilshere has a growl in his ear. Bully boys these Barca yobs.
26 mins Lovely pass from Xavi to play Alves in on the right but there's only Villa in the middle and the ball sails over his dinky head. Arsenal are in siege mentality here, not keeping the ball well, not putting any moves together. And now Koscielny has clogged Messi in the middle of the park, assisted by Van Persie. Messi rolls about a bit but then gets up, as he always does. He's cooking now and a couple of half bursts through the Arsenal defence set up Pedro for a curled shot that sails past the top corner. Excellent tackle form Djourou in there. This is really on a knife edge for Arsenal.
29 mins Sagna has been booked for a late tackle. The pressure is building, in that familiar quiet way. Arsenal's players already look a bit pinched and frazzled and tearful. It must be awful playing against this, like being cross-examined for an hour and a half by Stephen Hawking.
32 mins Messi. From a standing start beats three defenders just by moving the ball from foot to foot, but shoots over right footed. He looks half decent when he gets on the ball, the little scampering lad. On silence at the Camp Chris Brown writes: "I must concur with Julian Menz. Saw Barca play at home to Villareal last year and you could hear a pin drop during the 90 minutes, barring after a goal was scored, of course. Then it was rather rambunctious in a good way." So. We can at least shout louder than them.
34 mins Arsenal's midfield is being bypassed here. Diaby in particular looks lost. Wilshere is holding it together at times. Another fine break on the left by Pedro but his cross again has nobody anywhere near it. Messi has another dart and almost gets in behind Djourou near goal. He really is the key. Barca look quite laboured in truth, all very side to side, until he gets on the ball.
36 mins Blimey, massive spell of pressure right now. Adriano has just hit the outside of the post with a blast on the run from left back. It was an odd angle and never really looked like going in but Almunia wasn't really covering it either. What sounds like lots of shouting erupts from the Barca fans but these things are relative. And Wilshere has been booked. Surely someone is going to get sent off tonight. For Arsenal it's a question of hoping it's near the end.
39 mins Free kick in a dangerous position as Clichy clumps Alves lightly and he falls over holding the wrong bit of his leg. Comes to nothing. I'm not really sure what to make of this. Arsenal are winning overall. They haven't created anything at all in attack. And Barcelona look muted but still exceptionally dangerous at times. Neil Blackmon takes some solace: "Watching Arsenal play right now is the closest an American can ever come to seeing what the Alamo must have looked like in real time...tick, tick, tick...." A very well behaved and delicately-skilled Alamo so far.
42 mins Now Abidal has gone down holding his leg and wailing like it's been blown off by a mortar shell. In fact it was a good challenge by Rosicky. Everyone stands around and has a drink. Scott W fumes: "In these circumstances, playing Mascherano in midfield is like wearing a suit of full-plate armour on a moped. Or riding a quad-bike to catch a pig." I've done both of those.
43 mins Arsenal have an attack! First of the match! Van Persie looks overjoyed and somehow wins a flukey corner. Only four Arsenal players go up for it and the ball is cleared but at last some yellow-shirted possession. It seems a bit weird. Not sure I like it. Can we go back to normal now.
45 mins Wilshere goes down holding his leg, Barca players try to pull him up. There's a deeply unconvincing face-off and chest-bumping melee between football's two least hard teams. Must feel a bit like being mauled by a wet tea towel.
45+1 mins It has kicked off a bit. Van Persie is booked for a shove on Alves. A little bit soft that. But another card and they really are piling up. Who'd have thought it. Arsenal will be desperate to get through these five minutes of added time now.
45+3 mins Cripes, great break by the striding Iniesta, plays in Messi and his powerful shot is palmed away by Manuel.
45+3 mins GOAL! Barcelona 1-0 Arsenal Oh dear, Cesc Fabregas. Arsenal's captain attempts a ludicrous backheel on the edge of his own area, it's seized on by three Barca players and Messi ends up rounding Almunia and nicking the bouncing ball in to an empty net. Neat finish and predatory play from Barca, but that was woeful from Fabregas.
45+5 mins HALF TIME Barcelona 1-0 Arsenal. Looking at it again, Messi really did finish that nicely. Almunia almost clawed the ball away but he dinked round him like a cheeky ballerina and nipped it in very calmly. The goal of course changes everything for Arsenal. They have to score now. And suddenly not having touched the ball for most of the half looks like a terrible start to this game rather than a stout fighting rearguard.
I'm off to get myself a revoltingly metallic and gritty hot chocolate. After which, more of your views.
Max from Earlsfield muses: "Admittedly terrible from Fab, a shame after 47 minutes of obdurate defence. What I'd like to know is why is Abidal still on the pitch? Any ref with a basic knowledge of the rules would deem his grasping of VP's throat as violent conduct, even more so if VP had gone down. Not sure the ref has got a handle on the game, IMHO. Rather subject to the Nou Camp's pressure." Would have been a tedious sending off. All that "you can't raise your hands" stuff sends me right off to sleep.
Oliver Dennis, and everyone else, writes:" "I thought Fabregas wasn't moving to Barcelona till the summer?". Oh dear. It really was a woeful moment of fannying about. But I think Barca make people make mistakes with their pressure. And they make you pay too. Horrible moment. A really weak, playground kind of backheel, right to Iniesta who was standing a yard behind him. Lovely stuff if they were wearing the same shirt though.
Linda Howard writes some frothingly deranged nonsense that actually seems to be a fair reflection of what quite a few of you think: "Can I just imagine that Fabregas sabotaged this game purposefully? - That he just wants to concentrate on the Premeir League because that
is an accolade he can't win once he leaves for Barcelona? So get out of the Champion's League, get some rest, some concentration, and go for what he can attain before he takes off? Cynical? Or am I hoping that Cesc is smarter than to do a little back-heel on the edge of his own box and therefore naive?" No. You can't. Absurd.
Justin Kavanagh notes: "That's two seasons in a row that Messi has made Almunia look like a cat trying to pounce on a torchlight." And Ben Dunn has it about spot on I reckon: "Arsenal are trying to follow Inter's template from last year: defending deep and looking to break quick on the counter. Sadly so far the quick counter hasn't happened and unless they are able to win possession and quickly move the ball wide it won't in the second half. Barcelona are playing at half-speed so won't tire either. I hope Wenger has another tactical masterplan, because the first one has, due to Fabregas and his silky box of tricks, just run its course." A counter attacking game with no attacks. This needs a re-think.
Letu Yang has wise words: "Calm down, guys. In the last four times when Arsenal played Barcelona, the team who scored first has never won the game." But still. Arsenal have pretty much gone to pieces out there under all that pressing and passing. It's a mammoth effort to get back up for the second half.
Second half coming up. Arsenal are out first. What has Arsene come up with? Arsene? Arsene? Come on. Come up with something, Arsene.
46 mins Arsenal kick off the second half and start with a massive lump up the field from Almunia. Is this a change of tactic? Are we going Stoke? Barca seem unperturbed. Wenger has apparently told his team to be "tough" and "strong" this half. Whatever. Getting the ball for a bit would be a good start.
48 mins More Barca possession stuff almost ends up in Clichy presenting the ball to Iniesta in front of goal but he gets his challenge in and hacks clear. But Arsenal do look a bit brighter already. Can they get Nasri in the game?
49 mins Messi beats two defenders, takes another out of the game, feints one way and plays a lovely reverse pass in the box to.. no one. That was a strange moment. You felt there just had to be someone there to smash the ball into the net and it's bound to be their own fault that they weren't. Barca corner now. They're right back in their stride.
52 mins Pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass pass. Pass pass pass. Foot in. Pass pass pass pass. Pass pass pass.
53 mins GOAL! Barcelona 1-1 Arsenal. Whoah! An own goal from a corner won by Nasri off on a weaving run against three defenders. Nasri takes it and Busquets heads it into his own net for no apparent reason. He's not a proper centre back and there you go. Arsenal are back in front out of absolutely nowhere. A simple set piece. Maybe they really don't like it up 'em after all.
55 mins What now then? I suspect loads of Barca pressure. Messi almost scores again right away but Djourou gets a late saving tackle in. What a strange game this is.
56 mins Oh my. Van Persie is sent off. A second yellow card for having a shot when the whistle has been blown for offside. Yes. He really has been sent off for that. He says he hadn't heard it. He looks genuinely outraged. And that is one of the stupidest refereeing decisions I've ever seen. To lose a player for that is ludicrous. No time was wasted. The ball was with the keeper. And Arsenal are right up against it now. Not sure I can face the next half hour. It's painful.
58 mins So. here we go then. Pass pass pass pass desperate tackle pass pass pass desperate tackle. How long will they hold out? Villa goes very close after an intricate move. Adriano has a shot from way out on the left. It's the polite Alamo now all right.
60 mins Wow. Arsenal carved open there but Adriano passes when he might have scored and Alves ends up smashing the ball miles over the bar. I've just heard there was exactly a second between the whistle and Van Persie kicking the ball. For that he's sent off. Absurd. And yet again Barcelona are benefitting from some kind refereeing against an English side. Remember Ballack's crazy ref-chase?
64 mins Brilliant block on Messi by Djouoru who is having an immense game in among all this. Oliver Lewis writes: "competent beautiful football + competent beautiful football = incompetent goals. Who would have thought?" Indeed. The Busquets OG was comical.
66 mins Well... It is all Barca but Arsenal are fighting. Wilshere is putting in a lot of tackles and also keeping his cool. But there just is no respite from the waves of possession. It will be freakish if Barca don't score in half an hour of this. Adriano again makes a false pass on the end of a long passing move. The crowd howl. When does it become a pressure game for Barca if it's still 1-1? 75 minutes?
67 mins Brilliant and brave save by Almunia at the feet of Villa. I thought that was going in, Villa is such a great finisher. A lovely pass from Messi to create it. Wave after wave of possession here interspersed with the mercy of the occasional free kick.
69 mins GOAL! Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal. That is a lovely goal, right through the middle of the Arsenal defence. Iniesta surges through, plays the ball to Villa, he finds Xavi deftly and he finishes it neatly. That was always coming. You can't defend against this team with ten men. They are simply too good.
71 mins Penalty to Barcelona. Koscielny brings down Pedro.
71 mins GOAL! Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal. Messi steps up and puts it away with ease. It's 4-3 now on aggregate. Arsenal are on the ropes, Rocky style, blood pouring from their half-closed eyes. This isn't technically over. But it is all over now.
73 mins Rosikcy comes off and Arshavin comes on. Of course, another Arsenal goal would change everything, but right now this is like watching a primary school team take on the local competitive dads XI. Sadly, we're going to have to talk about the sending off too. Arsenal were up against it then too. But with ten outfield players you never know.
76 mins Arsenal haven't given up. Arshavin and Wilshere combine to set Nasri off down the right wing but he's crowded out. They keep the ball though. Maybe I'm underestimating them. Arsenal are a very fit team. James Drake writes: "I'm not an Arsenal fan - I'm a neutral who was looking forward to a fascinating match. I feel nothing but contempt for this jobsworth referee." A lot of people are saying something similar, but you have to say Barca have been very good, as ever, and Arsenal have had, by my count, exactly no shots on goal. It is a 3-1 kind of match, and it was at ten versus ten too.
80 mins Here we go. Some elegant time wasting from the maestros. Pass-pass-pass. Pass-pass. From here on in for the avoidance of doubt unless I specifically say otherwise, you can assume "pass-pass-pass".
82 mins Suddenly the pitch looks huge. There are vast open spaces out there on the wings. It's like eight pitches joined together. Almunia makes a brilliant save with his knee to thwart Messi. He was offside, but still a wonder save. Nathan Duin points out "Inter defended against this team with 10 men for a very long time." True. OK. Arsenal can't defend against this team with 10 men. Only Mourinho-issue super-defenders can.
85 mins Fabregas has gone off but then he wasn't really there anyway. Incidentally, Barca could have scored about 15 times in the last ten minutes. Afellay is on and he's missed quite a few. Almunia is on fire. Pass-pass-pass has turned into chance-chance-shoot-save. Bendtner is on for Arsenal. He hasn't touched the ball yet.
86 mins Another golden chance. This is now a training match. Alves bungles when he should have scored. Carlos Cunha sneers a little unkindly: "So this is the greatest team of all time? To beat Arse, they needed a little help from their friend Fabregas (whose disloyalty eventually dawns even on Wenger, who pulls him off) and from their friend the ref. And then, the score again, it has to be from the spot." Carlos, let it go. They have been great.
87 mins Bendtner misses the chance that might have won the tie. Oh dear. A break out down the right, Wilshere, who has had a good game, plays a low cross with the outside of his boot and the Dane fluffs it in the middle. He stretched, he lunged, he toppled over, he failed to make contact. Good defending by Mascherano, but he really should have got to that. Would have been extraordinary, not to mention a terrible mugging. Bit like Michael Caine defeating the Zulus at Rorke's Drift.
90+1 mins Oddly, and against all the tide of the game, Arsenal are having some attacks here and it's Barca who look nervous. What a strange game this has been. They've got it back now. Pass-pass-pass-pass backwards pass-pass-pass take a breather. Four minutes of overtime.
90+3 mins Barca hoof it desperately out of defence. Arsenal hoof it long to Bendtner. He can't control it. They might not get another touch now.
90+4 mins FULL TIME Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal (Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate ). The end of a strange game that was more a string of surprising events than a flowing football match. Barcelona could have scored eight or nine tonight, but at the same time Arsenal were not humiliated and might have even snatched it at the end. The Van Persie red card will be the talking point but in truth only one team deserved to win.
There you go then. That's it for Arsenal in the Champions League for another season, eliminated at the Camp Nou again. There is no disgrace in losing to this wonderful Barcelona team and, bizarrely they might have won it if Bendtner had been able to extend his right leg a little further. Once again Barcelona are irresistible, untouchable, but also strangely vulnerable in the same breath.
That is all from me for now. Thanks for all your emails. Far too busy to post them up in the second half, so sorry about that. Hope you enjoyed the coverage of a most peculiar, but still riveting game. Barney.