This post contains affiliate links. “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”
Baggy sleeves? Control. Proper football boots without the silly sock collar? Yes. Lionel Messi overshadowed by an English teenager and two forgotten forwards? Yes, that too.
Arsenal’s round of 16 first leg with Barcelona in the 2010/11 Champions League met all of those criteria and more, giving it all the hallmarks of an instant classic.
Seriously, can we go back to 2011? Sublime football kits, packed stadiums (remember those?) And the likes of Arsene Wenger, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson, all fighting each other across Europe for silverware in a star-studded managerial scene worthy of an event. Main of WrestleMania.
Truth be told, the 2010/11 season actually wasn’t that great at the Emirates. They finished fourth in the Premier League, were kicked out of the FA Cup in the sixth round by Manchester United and lost the League Cup final in the 89th minute to Birmingham.
Yet none of that matters when you hold that night of February 16, 2011 in the Emirates in isolation.
The Gunners had faced the competition’s favorite Barcelona in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Pep Guardiola’s team had been European champions just two seasons earlier, but gave up the crown in the 2009/10 tournament in the semi-finals and was looking for revenge. .
The last thing Arsenal needed before a League Cup final was a first leg shot from a Barcelona that smelled blood. The Catalan giants arrived in the Emirates and played their complex aerial game, and despite the Gunners leading the fight with attack bursts, it took Barcelona only 26 minutes to draw first blood.
With a near-perfect turquoise fringe that doesn’t get enough credit for its beauty, a long-haired, baggy-sleeved Lionel Messi gracefully passed a pass to David Villa that split Arsenal’s defense in half and allowed the Spaniard to concede at home. .
That should have been the writing on the wall during a long night in North London, but it wasn’t. For all Messi’s dominance of possession, drenching Arsenal’s defenders like a wet paper towel, the finishing touch was not there. A goal offside here, a side net there; he had even managed to circle Wojciech Szczesny in goal before seeing his effort sunk inches from goal.
This was the invitation for Arsenal, and there was enough on the XI field to get something out of the game with a little inspiration. And although one would have expected it to come from Barcelona’s goal, Cesc Fabregas, it was 19-year-old Jack Wilshere who turned up the heat and grabbed the game by the neck.
The term “coming of age” is exaggerated a bit when describing an outstanding performance by a young star. But the twists and turns of Wilshere under pressure, walking away from the pressure of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta was nothing short of sublime, and they made the Spanish duo look no better than Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley at Everton.
Recovering the ball like it was no one’s business before going through the likes of Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie would have been a disgrace if he had walked away from that game with nothing to show for his efforts.
Wilshere was inventing pass lines out of thin air, tilting the ball from left to right and center from deep for teammates to advance. And with the help of a few substitutions, his tireless effort and catalog of passes finally paid off.
The Arsenal cavalry arrived in the form of Andrey Arshavin and, later, Nicklas Bendtner. Two Gunners cult heroes, one for four goals against Liverpool in 2009 and the other for, well, nobody knows.
Although that didn’t matter. Egos and reputations were out the window, especially since Wilshere was starting to strip them of players one by one in midfield. Arsenal’s patience was rewarded with a draw in the 78th minute when Van Persie fired the ball on the half volley from an unlikely angle to hit Víctor Valdés at his near post.
Five minutes later, a scintillating counterattack made Barcelona look like a student of their own style of play. The balls were bubbling from one end of the field to the other, and before they knew it, Samir Nasri had floated the ball towards Arshavin. The brave Russian needed a touch to hit the ball into the far corner with the inside of his boot, settling it in the back of the net and giving his team a 2-1 lead in the final ten minutes.
Shirt on his head, mindlessly running into a crowd of Arsenal fans, who had probably spilled the equivalent of a mortgage on hot drinks by now. Wenger’s deceptive Gunners had taken the lead and were completely fooling Guardiola’s team in a majestic way.
The Frenchman went on to describe it as “a special night” as his team strived for a memorable victory. And although they would eventually lose the return leg at the Camp Nou in March, no one could take away Arsenal’s 90 minutes of football, which had seen Arshavin immortalized and Wilshere burst onto the world stage. or so we think.