A flawed flick by Arsenal's less than fit talisman opened the door for Barcelona and their magician, Lionel Messi
No matter how divided his heart, Cesc Fábregas could not have wanted it to be like this. Instead of pulling Arsenal's strings in this match, he was forced to wade into the muck and nettles and do whatever it might take to stop Barcelona exerting total control. And when, in the third minute of first-half stoppage time, the home side scored the goal they needed, the one that set them on the way to a deserved victory, it came from a moment of uncharacteristic imprecision by the exiled Catalan.
Impossible to imagine Fábregas merely hoofing the ball clear, of course. But something agricultural would have been a better option than the flick with which he gave Andrés Iniesta possession outside the Arsenal area. The lethal simplicity of Iniesta's pass and the delicious impudence of Lionel Messi's scoop-and-dab finish – like a man placing a cherry on the top of an ice-cream sundae – represented a sudden outburst of everyday Barcelona brilliance at the end of a prolonged overture filled with tense probing and countering.
Fábregas came into this match having missed three games with a hamstring injury, and would leave the fray with just over 10 minutes to go with a similar problem. He may have been at something much less than 100% fitness, and wound up paying a bitter price. Later he tweeted his regret: "I take full blame for the result. One of the worst moments of my life. I apologise."
He could hardly have been surprised by the way the match went. Probably no one outside Barcelona's camp has studied their football more closely in recent seasons, wondering where he might have fitted in.
In this match, almost eight years after he left the city, he returned to make his first appearance in a club match at the Camp Nou, hoping to show the blaugrana what they have been missing, and what he might still have to offer one day. Although he will not celebrate his 24th birthday until May, this match was Fábregas's 22nd in the knock‑out rounds of the Champions League, spread over seven seasons. He made his debut on 9 March 2005, when he came on as a 17-year-old substitute in a 1-0 win over the Bayern Munich of Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and Bixente Lizarazu – yes, that long ago – at Highbury.
Six years less one day later, returning after missing three matches with a hamstring injury, he found himself scuffling furiously as Arsenal fought to prevent the goal that would not only erase their margin from the first leg but give Barcelona a potential winning advantage. Within the opening 25 minutes he turned up first at left‑back, dribbling the ball along his own byline to get away from the pestering Messi, and then at right-back, filling in for the roving Bacary Sagna.
This was not where Arsenal wanted him, but it was where he had to be if they were to stay in the tie. One side were enjoying virtually exclusive possession of the ball while the other struggled to disrupt their total dominance.
Big nights involving FC Barcelona have a way of making spectators feel like winners of a prize draw for a seat at the centre of the universe. That is how it was for an unforgettable 20 minutes at the Emirates Stadium in March of last year, and again a month later in their defeat over two legs to José Mournho's Internazionale. Early this season they subjected Mourinho's Real Madrid to a vengeful hurricane of goal-scoring, and on their return to north London last month they and Arsenal produced a delightful banquet of passing and movement.
This night, though, was very, very different. Less beauty, more struggle. All the artistry, all the positive virtues, were with one side, all the stress with the other. Sergio Busquets's own goal briefly gave Arsenal hope that they could cling on for a place in the last eight, and when Robin van Persie was given an absurd second yellow card for shooting after the whistle had gone for offside, defence became their only priority.
Sometimes 10 men can do the job of holding out better than 11, since their priorities are not in doubt. But a neat little goal from Xavi, constructed by his pal Iniesta, punctured that frail balloon of optimism, and Messi's penalty sucked out the last breath of hope.
But still one more Arsenal goal, without further punishment, and they would have gone through. Had Nicklas Bendtner capitalised on Jack Wilshere's fine pass three minutes from time this could have been the most bizarre result in the history of the competition, rendering statistics irrelevant. But the Dane's poor control did not allow him to deliver what would have been Arsenal's only shot on target.
The match had opened with 19 passes in the first 58 seconds between Barcelona players before their opponents were able to make their first intervention, a foul by Gaël Clichy on Xavi. It finished with another sequence, this time of 21 passes, with Wilshere's foul on Iniesta the final act of the game. Fábregas could only watch from the sidelines as another of the season's targets disappeared from Arsenal's sights.