Arsenal gave themselves a fighting chance of reaching the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday, coming from behind to stun favourites Barcelona 2-1 in a pulsating encounter in London.
Two goals in the final 12 minutes from Robin van Persie and substitute Andrey Arshavin clinched a dramatic victory for the English Premier League side after Barcelona had taken the lead through a first-half David Villa strike.
The result means Arsenal - thrashed 6-3 on aggregate by Barcelona in last year's quarter-finals - will carry a narrow lead into Camp Nou when the two sides meet in the second leg on 8 March. The thrilling finale capped a superb encounter at the Emirates as arguably the two most stylish sides in Europe laid on a feast of attacking football.
"It was one of the special nights because I feel we needed to be a special team," said Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. "It's open. We will go (to Camp Nou) and play our game again because you cannot just defend against this team. Our confidence will grow."
Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola said his team had been caught out by the speed of Arsenal's counter-attacking. "It was a fantastic game (with) many, many chances for both teams," Guardiola said. "We created more chances than last year. It's a pity, but we knew they're a very, very good team. On the counter-attack they're dangerous. But we have the second leg."
Arsenal started brightly and tested Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes after only five minutes, when a jinking run from Theo Walcott saw the ball transferred to Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the area. The Spanish maestro flicked an exquisite pass to van Persie, whose angled half-volley from close range forced a good save from Valdes.
The threat of Lionel Messi was never far away however, and the Argentinian star drew a desperate challenge from behind from Alex Song after only seven minutes that earned the Cameroonian a booking. Arsenal were then given a huge let-off on 15 minutes when Messi was sent racing clear after an immaculate pass from Villa. The Argentine ace committed Wojciech Szczesny with a magical feint and beat the Arsenal keeper with a delicate dink, but the effort rolled just wide of the post.
Arsenal continued to live dangerously, and Andres Iniesta just failed to find Villa with another penetrative pass along the deck. After numerous ominous warning signs for Arsenal, the opening goal duly arrived on 26 minutes.
Another eye-of-the-needle pass from Messi sent Villa racing clear and the Spanish FIFA World Cup™ star drilled a low shot beneath Szczesny. Arsenal's players appealed for offside as boos rang out around the Emirates, but Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli remained unmoved.
With Barcelona dominating possession, Arsenal's most promising moments of the half came on the counter-attack, where Walcott's pace regularly unnerved the visitors' defence. The England international was at the heart of a lightning break on 29 minutes that ended with van Persie slicing his shot wide. Arsenal breathed another sigh of relief on 38 minutes when Messi had the ball in the net, only to be adjudged fractionally offside.
A frenetic start to the second half saw both sides struggle to create clear chances, although Arsenal were grateful when Laurent Koscielny - magnificent throughout - just managed to knock Pedro Rodriguez off-balance as he went clear on goal on 57 minutes.
Arsenal continued to probe for openings on the break however, and a sweeping move ended in a booking for Gerard Pique, who tripped Samir Nasri. The booking rules the Barça centre-back out of the second leg.
Just when it seemed Arsenal's labours were to be in vain, van Persie conjured a goal out of nothing on 78 minutes. Gael Clichy flicked a ball over the top and van Persie went clear wide on the left. Nothing seemed on but the Dutchman spotted daylight between Valdes and the Barcelona goalkeeper's near post and thundered home a rasping low shot.
With Barcelona suddenly rocking, Arsenal pressed home their advantage, and seven minutes from time their persistence paid off. Another counter-attack saw Nasri burst clear down the right. The Frenchman checked and weighed his options before picking out Arshavin, who had replaced Song, and the diminutive Russian swept in a majestic winner.