London: Arsenal, the dashing sophisticates of British football, were left hanging on like a bloodied bare-knuckle boxer but lived to fight another day as they clawed a 2-2 draw with Barcelona.
That Arsene Wenger's side still have a shot at the semi-finals of the Champions League despite being ripped to shreds for 60 minutes on home turf during a rip-roaring quarter-final, first leg owed much to luck and wasteful Barca finishing -- but above all, old fashioned guts.
If it had been a boxing match, Arsenal would have been stopped long before the end of the first round as unanswered blows rained down on them.
With Argentine magician Lionel Messi leading Arsenal a merry dance, Barcelona hit Arsenal from every angle and should have been out of sight long before the hosts recovered their senses in the final 20 minutes.
Theo Walcott, Wenger's final throw of the dice on a night when most of his gambles blew up in his face, came off the bench to spark a recovery with a goal 20 minutes from time before captain Cesc Fabregas equalised with an 85th-minute penalty.
Even Wenger, never overly generous when it comes to praising opponents, was blown away by the quality of play produced by European champions Barcelona for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic's two second-half goals was meagre reward for a dazzling display of intricate, attacking soccer.
"I have to say we played against a great team who were dominant in the early part of the game and that's where we were lucky because they had a lot of early chances," Wenger told reporters.
"I don't deny we were outplayed for most of the game, they are an outstanding team. It's hard but you can respect it more when you are not kicked.”
"It was art, it was a great football night and it was two teams who went for it, an exceptional football night."
Wenger stood powerless as Arsenal chased shadows but he praised his side's durability as they picked themselves off the floor and he believes the second leg in the Nou Camp could produce one of the greatest feats of his career.
"It would be a big achievement if we could do it but I believe it's possible," he said.
"They will feel they should have killed us off. If we had not shown great mental strength against a side of their quality it could have been five."
Arsenal will be without Fabregas for the second leg after he was booked for a foul on Sergio Busquets that means he is suspended for the Nou Camp clash although after leaving the ground on crutches his season looks in jeopardy anyway.
They also lost William Gallas to a calf injury, while Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin limped off in the first half.
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who gave former Arsenal captain Thierry Henry a brief run-out to warm applause from his once adoring fans, described it as the best away performance since he took over.
It was hard to argue with that as the Catalans launched a ferocious assault.
Messi, the world's best player, signalled his intent with a surging run deep into Arsenal territory in the opening minute, signalling a sustained spell of pressure that produced nine Barca goal attempts in the opening 15 minutes.
Ibrahimovic somehow poked a point-blank effort over the bar from a cross by Daniel Alves and Almunia then saved a Messi blast with his legs before a crazy passage of play saw Messi and Ibrahimovic both denied by the keeper.
Arsenal reached the interval level but there was no respite and Barcelona went ahead within 30 seconds of the restart when Gerard Pique played in Ibrahimovic who dinked a lob over Almunia who was near the edge of his box.
Thirteen minutes later Arsenal looked dead and buried when Xavi caught their defence square and Ibrahimovic had time and space to pick his spot, blasting a right-foot shot past Almunia.
Arsene Wenger threw on Walcott, who breathed some fire into Arsenal with his pace unsettling the previously serene visitors.
Nicklas Bendtner found Walcott with a clever pass and the winger beat Valdes with a firm drive before Fabregas kept his nerve late on to convert a penalty after Barca's captain Carles Puyol was harshly adjudged to have fouled him in the box.
Puyol's misfortune was compounded when he was red-carded meaning Barca will be without both their regular centre backs next week after Gerard Pique was booked.
"From what I've seen tonight that's not enough," Wenger said when asked if that had swung the tie Arsenal's way.
First Published: Thursday, April 01, 2010, 08:58