Champions League

Remembering Arsenal's 2011 Champions League comeback against Barcelona

Mitchell Wilks
Jack Wilshere put in a flawless performance
Jack Wilshere put in a flawless performance / LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Baggy sleeves? Check. Proper football boots without the daft sock collar? Yep. Lionel Messi being overshadowed by an English teenager and two forgotten strikers? Yeah, that too.

Arsenal's round of 16 first leg bout with Barcelona in the 2010/11 Champions League met all those criteria and more, giving it all the hallmarks of an instant classic.

Seriously though, can we just go back to 2011? Sublime football kits, full stadiums (remember those?) and the likes of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson all brawling with one another across Europe for silverware in a star-studded managerial scene fit for a WrestleMania main event.

How about that for a heavyweight battle?
How about that for a heavyweight battle? / LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Truthfully, the 2010/11 season actually wasn't all that great at the Emirates, though. They finished fourth in the Premier League, were booted out of the FA Cup in the sixth round by Manchester United and lost the League Cup final in the 89th minute to Birmingham.

None of that matters, however, when you hold that night of 16 February 2011 at the Emirates in isolation.

The Gunners had been drawn against competition favourites Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16. Pep Guardiola's side had been European champions just two seasons prior, but surrendered the crown in the 2009/10 tournament at the semi-final stage and were out for vengeance.

The last thing Arsenal needed before a League Cup final was a first-leg thumping from a Barcelona side who smelt blood. The Catalan giants came to the Emirates and deployed their complexed passing game, and despite the Gunners bringing the fight with attacking flurries, it took Barcelona just 26 minutes to draw first blood.

A lethal duo
A lethal duo / Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Donning a near-perfect turquoise changed strip that doesn't get enough credit for it's beauty, a long-haired and baggy-sleeved Lionel Messi elegantly threaded through a pass to David Villa which split Arsenal's defence down the middle and allowed the Spaniard to slot home.

That should've been the writing on the wall for a long evening in north London, but it wasn't. For all of Messi's dominance in possession, soaking up Arsenal defenders like a wet paper towel, the finishing touch wasn't there. One offside goal here, a side netting there - he'd even managed to round Wojciech Szczesny in goal before seeing his dinked effort trickle inches wide of the goal.

This was the invitation for Arsenal, and there was enough out there on the pitch from the XI to get something from the game with a little bit of inspiration. And while one would've expected that to come from Barcelona target Cesc Fabregas, it was a 19-year-old Jack Wilshere who turned up the heat and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck.

Levelling Lionel Messi? Completed it mate.
Levelling Lionel Messi? Completed it mate. / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The term 'coming of age' is somewhat overplayed when describing a breakout performance from a young star. But Wilshere's twists and turns under pressure, pivoting away from the press of Xavi and Andres Iniesta was nothing short of sublime, and made the Spanish duo look no better than Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley at Everton.

Recovering the ball like it was nobody's business before threading through the likes of Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie, it would've been nothing short of a disgrace if he had walked away from that game with nothing to show for his efforts.

Wilshere was inventing passing lanes from nothing, angling the ball left right and centre from deep for teammates to push forward. And with the help of some substitutions, his tireless efforts and catalogue of passes were finally rewarded.

The cavalry for Arsenal came in the form of Andrey Arshavin and, later on, Nicklas Bendtner. Two Gunners cult heroes, one for a four-goal haul against Liverpool in 2009 and the other for, well, nobody actually knows.

Oh, Robin van Persie...
Oh, Robin van Persie... / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

That didn't matter, though. Egos and reputations were out the window, not least because Wilshere was beginning to strip them away from players one by one in midfield. Arsenal's patience was rewarded with an equaliser in the 78th minute when Van Persie rifled the ball on the half volley from an improbable angle to catch out Victor Valdes at his near post.

Five minutes later, a scintillating counterattack made Barcelona look like students to their own style of play. Balls fizzed from one end of the pitch to the other, and before they knew it, Samir Nasri had floated the ball to Arshavin. The plucky Russian needed one touch to stroke the ball into the far corner with the inside of his boot, nestling it in the back of the net and giving his side a 2-1 lead inside the final ten minutes.

Shirt over the head, running senseless into a thronging crowd of Arsenal fans, who had probably spilt the equivalent of a mortgage in hot drinks by this point. Wenger's tricky Gunners had pulled into the lead and completely bamboozled Guardiola's side in majestic fashion.

The Frenchman went on to describe it 'a special night' as his side held out for a memorable victory. And while they would ultimately go on to lose the second leg at the Camp Nou in March, nobody could take away just how good a 90 minutes of football it was from Arsenal, that had seen Arshavin immortalised and Wilshere break out onto the world stage - or so we thought.