Arsenal's strength grows with big win

Arsenal's nickname – "Barcelona Lite" – was never meant as an insult, but for 75 minutes on Wednesday night it seemed a bit like one.

As two of the most entertaining teams in Europe did battle in the Champions League round-of-16 first leg, big brother Barca was winning out, keeping the team that would love to be seen as a worthy imitation at arm's length.

Then, suddenly, little brother Arsenal found its mojo. Having seen Barcelona settle into its brand of seamless majesty and cruise to a 1-0 lead thanks to David Villa, the Gunners refused to crumble like so many before them.

First they found a way to compete with and harangue one of the slickest passing machines soccer has ever seen, and then, with confidence replenished, embark upon a late smash-and-grab raid to earn a 2-1 victory and set things up perfectly for the return leg in Spain next month.

Goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin turned the match on its head, but in reality, Arsenal's revival came from the very heart of the game, and the heart of the field. Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere found a way to do battle with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and blunted the brilliance of Lionel Messi, to put the home side on the front foot. For a golden period after halftime, Arsenal did something few other teams have managed: They out-Barca'd Barca.

The result itself guaranteed nothing tangible. Barca is an almighty force on its own turf and will still like its chances of booking a quarterfinal spot when hostilities recommence on March 8.

"They don't lose many games," said Arsenal captain Fabregas. "[Barcelona] are the best side in football history in my opinion. This is just halftime – but it will give confidence to the team."

This victory meant a great deal to the psychology and perception of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal. If the game had been allowed to drift to the 1-0 Barca win that looked so likely, then the criticism of the Gunners would have been plentiful, and sneering.

Jibes that they were simply a low-rent, beta version of the original Barcelona would have been hurled, that Arsenal's tidy passing and youthful endeavor counted for little if not supported by a champion's spirit.

Instead, the plaudits will pour in, not just for the sheer achievement of having out-battled Barcelona over 90 minutes, but for the manner in which it was accomplished. Arsenal did this its way, not by trying to kick its opponent into submission but in a pure head-to-head duel, a pitting of wits and skills and effort.

"We just had to play our own game," said van Persie. "If you drop back too much against them, they are too good by far. We had to beat them in their own style and it is a fantastic win."

Now Arsenal has validation of its approach and system, the pressure will be on to turn that into hardware. Wenger's men have not won anything since 2005, a remarkable drought for a club of its stature and the longest since the French boss arrived in North London.

This season's English Premier League title is not out of reach, but Manchester United's consistency will be tough to overcome during the closing weeks, and it is a realistic possibility that Arsenal could end another campaign empty-handed.

Its strength is growing, though, and this was one of its biggest nights in recent memory. Wenger hopes it will lead to more and that his side will take heart from the knowledge that "Barcelona Lite" just got a whole bunch heavier – and a whole lot closer to the real thing.