|Wenger's finest moments|
|Thursday, 17 February 2011 21:02|
The group of Arsenal fans gathered in Holborn station gazed up at a giant screen inviting them to sample the delights of Barcelona.
They already had - and still survived to witness one of Arsene Wenger's finest moments.
North London, in the space of 24 unforgettable hours, laid claim to the title of European football's epicentre as Arsenal followed up Tottenham's wonderful win against AC Milan at the San Siro by flooring the Champions League favourites with a late one-two.
And while Wenger may have to wait three weeks for total victory against Catalonia's artists to fully justify the philosophy he applies so strictly to Arsenal, this was a night he can use as a powerful weapon against the doubters.
It is stretching reality to breaking point to suggest Arsenal were the better side against Barcelona, far from it, but this was such a show of moral and physical courage from the Gunners that few would begrudge them their win.
Arsenal were outplayed to the point of being passive by-standers for some portions of what Wenger correctly labelled "a special football night", but the team so often accused of lacking inner steel (and accused here on occasions, it should be said) stood firm and waited for their chance.
It looked unlikely to come as Barcelona weathered Arsenal's best efforts, an enthralling encounter entering its last 12 minutes with David Villa's first-half goal still the difference.
And then it happened. Wenger's bravery in going on all-out attack with his changes was rewarded when Robin van Persie was the beneficiary of Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes' amateurish positioning for an equaliser before substitute Andrey Arshavin crowned a perfect passage of approach play by sweeping in the winner seven minutes from time.
The Emirates, no library on this thunderous night, erupted in relief and joy.
Barcelona had charmed and tortured in equal measure while beating Arsenal to progress into the semi-final last season, but now there was the chance of revenge.
Arsenal may have been clinging to the Champions League by their fingertips at times but it is to their eternal credit that when they had the ball they passed it and played as befits their principles.
For all the pre-match talk of "getting in Barcelona's faces" they stayed true to what Wenger believes.
"Everyone urged us to play differently to our nature," he said. "We did not. The fact that we won can strengthen the belief in our philosophy and that is most important."
There was a bloody-minded edge too, a quality not traditionally associated with Arsenal.
Wenger recalled how Barcelona dropped down the gears late on at the Emirates last season - they did the same here and Arsenal were ready for the change.
Wenger added: "We were not only strong on the football side but on the mental side too. Against Barcelona you are exposed many times when they have possession but we kept resilient and strong.
"The problem with their possession is that if you are a fraction late you are in trouble. You have to be tight with the marking and if you don't it is difficult.
"We were prepared mentally to live with that. Usually we have the ball more than our opponents but we knew tonight that 60 percent of the time we would have to be focused on them."
Wenger's calculations were correct as Barcelona enjoyed 61 percent of possession, with the visitors completing 629 passes compared to Arsenal's 299.
Arsenal were on the right end of the most vital statistic, though, and this was no Barcelona-lite, the phrase often used as the faintest praise to damn them.
It was a victory Wenger can use to inject self-belief. He still has to win trophies to fully justify his methods - but if beating the team he calls "the best in the world" does not instil confidence nothing will.
Of course, Barcelona should have had the game won comfortably before Arsenal's two resounding late blows - but is this not a fate that has been suffered by Wenger's sides before?
Barcelona were too often keen to make an artistic impression rather than add an edge of ruthlessness, ending up losers in a game they should have won.
And Barcelona, as they were at the Emirates last season, were guilty of a complacency bordering on smugness as they went on to cruise control rather than kill off an opponent.
Is this not a charge that has been levelled at Arsenal in the English Premier League before?
There is more than one case for comparison between these two clubs.
Lionel Messi, skills as dazzling as his orange boots, was in particularly generous mood as he mixed creating Villa's goal with some uncharacteristically slipshod work in front of goal.
Sir Alex Ferguson labelled Barcelona's midfield hub of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez "The Carousel" before being made to feel rather ill himself in the 2009 Champions League final, but Arsenal held on tight and refused to be sickened by what can easily become a harrowing experience.
And this is where Wenger found his real heroes. Jack Wilshere was undaunted by the presence of greatness in opposition and, in partnership with Barcelona's favourite Gunner Cesc Fabregas, illustrated why such high hopes are loaded onto his teenage shoulders.
Laurent Koscielny, much maligned after uncertain months in England, was a tower of strength in among the flying footwear of Messi, Villa and Pedro.
And young goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny performed with an assurance that backed up the whispers behind the scenes at Arsenal that he is Wenger's man for the future.
Of course, a measure of perspective and context is required because this job is only half done and the euphoria of Wednesday has the capacity to become a distant memory in the Nou Camp in three weeks.
Wenger admitted Barcelona remain favourites, knowing a 1-0 win could put them through, but Arsenal have something precious to protect and Barcelona have plenty to think about.
And Wenger can take pride in his own work on the sidelines, showing a gambler's instinct to send on the attacking Arshavin with Arsenal behind after 68 minutes, a sharp contrast to Guardiola's mystifying conservatism in sending on Seydou Keita for the lethal Villa.
So to Spain and almost certainly more of the same.
Wenger and Guardiola made bold statements of attacking intent moments after the final whistle.
Guardiola said: "If you have the time or don't have anything to do I invite you to Barcelona and you will really enjoy the game in the second leg." It was an invitation to sample the delights of Barcelona many Arsenal supporters will find impossible to resist. - BBC Sport.