Lionel Messi was the hero again for FC Barcelona as his side defeated Arsenal 3-1 to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Tuesday night.
Messi scored on the brink of halftime and netted a second half penalty to decide a thrilling match between the two sides.
Barcelona deserved to progress to the last eight, but thanks to the performance of Arsenal substitute keeper Manuel Almunia, the final result was in the balance until the referee blew the final whistle.
With central defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out through injury and suspension, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola did as expected, dropping Sergio Busquets into central defense to partner Eric Abidal.
There was a big surprise in the Arsenal lineup, however, with Robin Van Persie, who had previously been ruled out with an ankle injury, recovering to take his place in the side along with former Barca youngster Cesc Fabrigas, who passed a fitness test on Monday.
Arsene Wenger left swift Andrei Arshavin on the bench, preferring the muscle of Abu Diabi in front of the visiting defense.
Barcelona needed to score at least one goal in order to qualify and they started the game in control, winning possession every time Arsenal looked to attack.
The visitors suffered a major setback after 15 minutes when goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was forced to leave the pitch after injuring his hand stopping a powerful free kick from Dani Alves. He was replaced by Manuel Almunia between the posts.
Barca found it hard to create chances as the English side looked very well organized in midfield and defense. Messi should have been given a penalty after a foul by Diaby inside the area and in the closing minutes Adriano Correia hit the post from a narrow angle.
It was not until injury time that Barca took the lead and it gave thanks to Messi, who brilliantly controlled a pass from Andres Iniesta before volleying the ball past Almunia.
That goal meant it was now Arsenal who needed to score and they did so after 52 minutes when Busquets headed a corner into his own goal. No Arsenal player had managed a shot on target all night and yet they were level, although they should have been behind again immediately afterwards when Almunia saved from David Villa.
Van Persie was sent off after 55 minutes after seeing his second yellow card of the night for kicking the ball away following an offside decision. He had previously been booked for putting his hand in Alves’ face.
That was the sign for Barca to put the Arsenal goal under siege and Almunia saved magnificently from Villa on two occasions. However Xabi put Barca ahead after 69 minutes after a neat pass from Messi.
Two minutes later Messi scored again as Pedro Rodriguez was brought down in the Arsenal area. This time the referee gave the penalty and Messi sent Almunia the wrong way from the spot.
Another goal would still have sent Arsenal through and Barca continued attacking, but Almunia stopped everything they threw at him. Neverthless so complete was Barca’s control of the ball that the visitors were unable to carve out a single chance in the remaining time.
– Xinhua News