A Lionel Messi brace helped Barcelona to a 3-1 victory over ten-man Arsenal on Tuesday to put them into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League 4-3 on aggregate.
The Argentine FIFA Ballon d'Or winner was the difference as Barcelona produced another outstanding display of attacking football which left the Arsenal defence stretched from beginning to end. The Catalan side needed just one goal after losing 2-1 at the Emirates and Messi put them ahead in first-half stoppage time.
An own goal by Sergio Busquets put Arsenal back on level terms but the game turned Barça's way by the sending off of Robin van Persie two minutes later. Xavi Hernandez levelled the tie at 2-1 and then Leo Messi scored the decider with a penalty.
While Van Persie labelled the sending off "a joke," an angry Arsene Wenger reportedly confronted the Swiss official in the tunnel afterwards. "We lost against a good team but if it had stayed at 11 players apiece then I could accept losing," said the Frenchman, who has seen his side lose in the League Cup final and exit here in the past ten days. "Unfortunately that was not the case and we have many regrets tonight. The way we lost tonight makes it hard to accept."
Whether it was a case of mind games or just a speedy recovery, Van Persie was on the team list to start. Ruled out last week by Wenger he was a last-minute inclusion on the plane and passed a late fitness test. The attention before the game was on local youth product Cesc Fabregas who chose to abandon his home-town team at the age of 16 by the lure of a first-team opportunity at Arsenal.
Fabregas was also ready to play after shrugging off a hamstring strain and lined up for his first official game at the Nou Camp alongside Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky with Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere behind. For Barcelona, Busquets as expected dropped into central defence alongside Eric Abidal with the only surprise that Adriano was preferred to Maxwell at left-back.
Arsenal defended deeply as they sought to avoid a repetition of last season's annihilation when after scoring an early opener they were torn apart with Messi getting all the goals in a 4-1 rout. A last ditch block by Laurent Koscielny from a Pedro Rodriguez shot after just three minutes set the stall for the Gunners as they attempted to snuff out the threat from Barça's trident attack led by Messi.
Arsenal suffered a set-back when keeper Wojciech Szczesny was forced off with a wrist injury and Manuel Almunia stepped into the fray. Barcelona looped ball after ball behind the Arsenal defence who most of the time were chasing shadows.
Koscielny made another important intervention and Johan Djourou made a tackle on Xavi who burst into the box but Barça began to get frustrated as the goal did not appear to be coming. The players remonstrated with the referee for what they saw as time-wasting and in a heated spell Van Persie was booked for pushing Dani Alves in the face.
On the point of half-time Barça finally found their way through as Andres Iniesta played in Messi and the Argentine kept his head to delicately chip the ball over the keeper and volley it into an empty goal. It appeared as though the visitors would be forced out of their shells but they drew level in bizarre circumstances. A corner was floated in and Busquets, surrounded by other Barça players, directed his header back into his own net.
A deflated home crowd were on their feet minutes later though as Van Persie was given a second yellow card for shooting after the whistle had blown. With the noise from a 90,000 capacity crowd, Van Persie could perhaps have been given the benefit of the doubt in his claim he didn't hear the whistle.
With a man extra, Barça pressed forward and a neat passing move split the Arsenal defence wide open. An Iniesta ball was flicked on by Villa into Xavi's path and he finished coolly. Minutes later and Barcelona extended their lead from the penalty spot with Messi slotting home after Pedro was upended by Koscielny.