UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg: Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2
It was the 1980 Cleveland Browns who first earned the nickname ‘Kardiac Kids’ for their habit of winning games with heart-stopping late-game heroics. That moniker could be equally attached to an Arsenal team who tonight extended to eight a run of games in which they have scored in the closing ten minutes.
It is rare that an eagerly-awaited match truly lives up to the hype, but this game delivered on all counts. Barcelona simply ran rings around Arsenal in the first half - they had nine shots on target in the first 16 minutes alone - passing and moving the ball with pace and elegance when attacking, and pressing their opponents in unison to devastating effect when defending. Arsenal were left chasing shadows for much of the half, and grew increasingly frustrated as the Spanish team denied them time to respond in kind.
If not for Manuel Almunia, Arsenal's Spanish goalkeeper who had been much maligned after conceding a soft equaliser at Birmingham on Saturday, Barca would have booked their place in the semis inside the first half hour. Almunia produced four or five saves which were truly world class during that period, reminding those fans at the Emirates with short memories that he is a shot-stopper with excellent reflexes and agility.
There was little else for the home fans to cheer about in the first half. Andrey Arshavin limped off injured, quickly followed by William Gallas. Samir Nasri twice wriggled behind the visitors' defence to deliver tempting crosses, and saw one curling effort drift just wide of Victor Valdes' left-hand post. When half-time came with the scoreline remarkably still goalless, Arsenal fans wondered if perhaps they had weathered the storm. (Myself among them, as I was lulled into a cheeky bet on a 0-0 draw.)
Wrong. A mere 23 seconds of the second half had elapsed when Zlatan Ibrahimovic - who to that point had displayed all the shooting accuracy of Devon Malcolm bowling blindfolded - found himself running free behind the Arsenal back line after a simple ball over the top. In a moment which undid his first half excellence, Almunia charged off his line, got caught in no man's land, and was made to look something of a turnip as the giant Swede artfully lobbed the ball over him and into the unguarded net.
Thirteen minutes later, with Arsenal having responded quite well to that shocking setback - Nicklas Bendtner having stung Valdes' hands with a bullet header - another straightforward aerial ball allowed Ibrahimovic to run on and fire a howitzer past the blameless Almunia. Barcelona, the great artists, found themselves 2-0 up courtesy of two long balls straight out of the old Wimbledon playbook.
An hour gone. Two goals up away from home. See you in the semis, eh?
If there has been one valid criticism of Arsenal in recent years, it has been an obvious mental fragility when faced with a physical or superior team. Arsene Wenger's beautiful team has been scarred by the likes of Stoke and Bolton. But that simply hasn't been the case this year, despite losing four out of four games to Chelsea and Man U. This 2009/10 Arsenal side has rebounded from every setback, whether it was Aaron Ramsey's broken leg at Stoke, or coming back from being 2-0 down inside five minutes in Liege. And, all season, this side has scored late, late goals, turning draws into wins and defeats into draws.
So as Barcelona's early, unsustainable tempo waned and their thoughts started to turn to a seemingly comfortable second leg at Camp Nou, Arsenal slowly, inexorably started to regain a measure of parity in midfield. It still felt like clutching at straws, but there remained a shred of hope. All that was needed was a catalyst.
That catalyst was Theo Walcott. Absent for much of the season with injury, too often missing in action when playing, and harshly labelled by Chris Waddle as lacking 'a football brain', Walcott was Wenger's third and final substitution on 66 minutes. Last roll of the dice.
Within 60 seconds, Walcott had blown by Maxwell as if he wasn't there to slide a teasing cross across the area. Two minutes after that he repeated the feat, Bendtner slid a perfect through ball to him and Walcott instantly drove the ball under the diving Valdes. 1-2. A straw grasped.
Like flicking a switch, the mood inside the ground changed. Despair was replaced by hope. Arsenal surged forward, Barca retreated. All of a sudden it seemed there was a red shirt who was first to every loose ball, where previously it had been yellow.
And then: the moment. 84 minutes - note, inside the final ten. Bendtner, again, deftly directed the ball towards his captain and former Barcelona youth team player Cesc Fabregas. Definite contact from behind by Barca skipper Carles Puyol. A soft penalty (but a penalty nonetheless), and a red card for the unfortunate Puyol. Fabregas - as if there was ever any doubt - converted the chance by hammering the ball hard and low down the middle, but injured himself in the process.
No matter. 2-2. A breathtaking end to a breathtaking match.
With their two away goals, Barcelona remain favourites for the return leg next Tuesday, but their confidence will be shaken by the absence of both starting centre backs, Puyol and Gerard Pique (suspended as a result of receiving his third yellow card of the competition). For Arsenal, the inspirational Fabregas (who has a suspected broken fibula) will miss his homecoming next week after a slightly soft third booking, Gallas is apparently done for the season and Arshavin's calf injury also makes him doubtful. Even so, Arsenal will fancy their chances - certainly considerably more so than they would have done with thirty minutes still to play.
If the second leg next week is half as dramatic, we will be in for a treat. I certainly know where I'll be on Tuesday night.