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A Lionel Messi-inspired FC Barcelona pushed through to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals with a dramatic 3-1 victory that was tense to the last.
Messi put the home side in front; Sergio Busquets' own goal swung the tie in Arsenal FC's favour before the 56th-minute departure of Robin van Persie to a red card restored Barcelona's ascendancy. Goals from Xavi Hernández and Messi, from the penalty spot, confirmed it and, with a 4-3 aggregate triumph, the Spanish titleholders' place in next Friday's draw for the last eight.
The first half continued seamlessly from the brilliance of the first leg. Barça pushed, probed and harassed the visitors with a hunger and relentlessness that grew and grew. It took until added time before the break for that Messi goal, yet Pedro Rodríguez brought a terrific tackle from Laurent Koscielny after only three minutes: the tone was set.
Again and again Johan Djourou, Koscielny or Jack Wilshere showed that the art of tackling in extremis has not been lost. Though by the time Barça forced a second save out of Arsenal the first one had already cost the Gunners their goalkeeper. Daniel Alves's stinging free-kick bent back Wojciech Szczęsny's fingers; on came Manuel Almunia.
The Spanish custodian must have been extra motivated by the challenge of excelling in his homeland but also sick of the sight of the Catalan giants: he had conceded eight goals in three previous encounters. He saved from David Villa, Adriano hit the post with a vicious shot then Josep Guardiola's side did what they do best.
Cesc Fàbregas's back-heel on the edge of the box was slack but the lurking Andrés Iniesta still had much to do, pouncing and releasing Messi with a delicious pass. The Argentina forward responded in kind, flipping the ball over Almunia, swivelling and volleying in.
The drama had barely begun. Shortly after the restart stand-in central defender Busquets contrived to head Samir Nasri's corner into his own net and suddenly Arsenal were nominally in command. For a moment, the Camp Nou and its beloved team wavered – but not for long.
Almunia was inspired, his personal duel with Villa immense. Time and again he saved at the striker's feet with bravery and brilliant judgement. Frustration grew, then Van Persie was adjudged to have kicked the ball away after an offside decision. He received a second booking and the game was back in Barça's hands.
It took ten more minutes but when Villa's deft pass glanced into Xavi's path the midfielder clipped effort finally superseded Almunia. Five minutes later the final reckoning came. Arsenal had produced brilliant penalty box interceptions all night but finally Koscielny mis-timed his attempt at robbing Pedro, the winger tumbled and referee Massimo Busacca pointed to the spot.
Messi sucked in his cheeks, focused and gently slid the ball to Almunia's left for the decisive moment in a titanic tie. Even then, substitute Nicklas Bendtner so nearly won Arsenal a remarkable victory but Javier Mascherano's brilliant covering tackle denied him.
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