Barcelona quicken pace towards Wembley

BARCELONA - Barcelona's display of collective and individual mastery against Arsenal has only strengthened the sensation that coach, club and fans are headed irresistibly to a second Champions League final at Wembley.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger thought he might have found a way to stop Pep Guardiola's side but two goals from Lionel Messi and one from Xavi, amid a performance of breathtaking skill on Tuesday, took the Catalans through 4-3 on aggregate.

Wenger's high-risk game-plan rested on soaking up the almost constant pressure, waiting for Barcelona to tire and trying to exploit the space that inevitably begins to open up.

The approach paid off for the London club in last month's first leg, when Andrei Arshavin scored a superb breakaway goal from a Theo Walcott centre to give Arsenal a 2-1 comeback win, and Barca do look vulnerable against swift counterattacks.

However, the dismissal of striker Robin van Persie early in the second half of the return at the Nou Camp dealt a blow to Arsenal's hopes of eliminating the favourites.

Wenger said it had changed the complexion of the game at a time his side were coming back into contention.

"Barcelona played, a little bit, a poker game by giving absolutely everything in the first half," he told a post-match news conference.

"I felt Barcelona gave a lot in the first half here we were completely dominated, I agree with that.

"But in the second half, you felt there was more space and, I knew, like in the first game, we would come back into it. I am convinced we would have won this game [without the red card]."

BARCA DOMINANT

Whether Wenger's plan would have worked without the sending-off will never be known and it may be optimistic to think Arsenal could have withstood Barca's almost complete domination even with 11 players on the pitch.

The Spanish champions completed 738 passes to Arsenal's 199, while the London club failed to muster a single shot to Barca's 19, 10 of which were on target.

The last time a European Cup/Champions League final was played at Wembley Stadium was in 1992, when Barcelona, featuring a certain skinny midfielder by the name of Guardiola, beat Sampdoria 1-0 to win the competition for the first time.

The final is at the rebuilt Wembley on May 28 and it will take something special to stop a nostalgic trip back.

Guardiola has already tasted Champions League victory as a coach, in his first season in charge in 2009, and was denied a second successive final when Jose Mourinho masterminded victory for Inter Milan in the semi-finals.

Barcelona could be pitted against Mourinho's new team Real Madrid when the draw for the quarter-finals is made on March 18, if their great rivals can get past Olympique Lyon next week.

Mourinho has a track record of Champions League upsets but even he would surely like to avoid being drawn against Barcelona, who set a new standard for the competition this season with their performance against Arsenal.


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