Arsenal comeback stuns Barcelona in Champions League

Arsenal came off the ropes to secure a 2-2 draw with Barcelona that kept their Champions League dream alive in the most unlikely fashion on an exhilarating night at the Emirates.

Having completely outclassed their hosts for much of the first half, the defending champions appeared to be cruising into the last four after two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the early stages of the second period.

But Theo Walcott’s strike and a late penalty from Cesc Fabregas set the stage for a tension-filled second act in the Nou Camp next week.

Barca will be without both their first-choice centrebacks for the return leg with Gerard Pique, who was booked here, and Carles Puyol, who was sent off for the foul on Fabregas that led to Arsenal’s equaliser, both ruled out by suspension.

Arsenal will scarcely be in better shape however with Fabregas also suspended after picking up a booking here and William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin both forced off with injuries.

From the outset it was clear that Lionel Messi, Xavi and co. regarded the wide spaces and immaculate surface of the Emirates as an invitation to party.

For more than 20 minutes, the home side was restricted to the exhausting pursuit of shadows that is more commonly the lot of visitors to north London.

That Arsenal survived the torrid opening unscathed was largely down to Manuel Almunia, who threw himself full length to deny Sergio Busquets, deflected a Messi effort over the bar with his legs and then pushed out a strong left-hand to deny Ibrahimovic, blocking Xavi’s follow-up for good measure.

Profligacy also contributed to the lack of a breakthrough, notably from Ibrahimovic, who lifted a sixth minute chance over the the bar from the edge of the six-yard box and then found the side netting after Thomas Vermaelen’s slip had allowed him to run clear of Arsenal’s back four.

Arsenal conjured up their first moment of menace in the 23rd minute, Samir Nasri sidestepping Daniel Alves on the corner of the penalty area before curling a shot narrowly beyond the far post with Victor Valdes, the Barca goalkeeper, struggling to cover.

There was also a reminder of Barcelona’s vulnerability in the air when Nicklas Bendtner got free on the right and sent in a cross that Abou Diaby, having outjumped Gerard Pique, nodded wide.

There was a palpable sense of relief among the home supporters that their team reached the interval on level terms.

Within 30 seconds of the restart however, Barcelona were in front thanks to a Pique punt that caught both Alex Song, who had been redeployed to centreback following the exit of Gallas, and Almunia badly out of position.

Allowed a free run through the inside right channel, Ibrahimovic had his mind made up for him by Almunia’s charge off his line and duly lifted the ball over the goalkeeper.

Only a superb stop from Valdes prevented Bendtner from heading Arsenal back into the contest after a fine cutback from Gael Clichy.

But it was no surprise when Barca extended their lead shortly afterwards. Xavi was the instigator, clipping a delicate through ball into the area and Ibrahimovic produced an emphatic finish to beat Almunia at his near post.

Wenger’s response was to throw Walcott into the fray and the England winger’s introduction yielded an almost immediate result that will have been noted by the watching Fabio Capello.

Typically neat build-up work culminated in Bendtner playing Walcott in behind Puyol and the winger’s shot managed to slither under Valdes’s dive.

Arsenal had secured a lifeline and they took a firmer grip on it with five minutes left after Fabregas, attempting to latch on to a Bendtner knockdown, was impedged by Puyol.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Akinfeev stars as CSKA hold Inter to single goal defeat

Inter Milan will take a slender lead to the Luzhniki Stadium next Tuesday after beating CSKA Moscow 1-0 at the San Siro here on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

‘Il Principe’ Diego Milito scored the only goal of the game during an Inter siege in the second half after a thoroughly forgettable first 45 minutes.

Jose Mourinho’s team, listless in the first period, were unrecognisable after the break and will be disappointed to have managed only the one goal.

That it stayed 1-0 was thanks largely to goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, a reported target for Manchester United who will have bolstered his burgeoning reputation with this performance.

In the first quarter of an hour there was little to get excited about although Wesley Sneijder made sure Akinfeev was awake from a free-kick and then Sergei Ignashevich returned the compliment for Julio Cesar.

The first real opportunity came on 22 minutes as Goran Pandev hit a rising shot from almost 25 yards that sailed just over the bar.

Moments later Japan star Keisuke Honda teed up Milos Krasic in a great shooting position inside the box but the Serbian midfielder shanked his effort miles off target.

Nine minutes before the break Samuel Eto’o jinked into the CSKA area but his shot hit Esteban Cambiasso, who was in an offside position, and that really summed up a disjointed and dire first half.

Mourinho must have said something to his players at half-time because Inter finally got going an hour in after a dreadful clearance from CSKA fell straight to Cambiasso 25 yards out and he fed the marauding Dejan Stankovic – but the Serbian got the ball caught between his feet and his poked finish was straight at Akinfeev.

The hosts were playing with more urgency and intensity and Pandev brought a flying one-handed save out of Akinfeev with a curling shot while the goalkeeper then plunged low to his right to hold onto an Eto’o effort.

The sudden surge of pressure told on 65 minutes as Sneijder passed to Milito, who found the bottom right hand corner from the edge of the area.

Next up it was the turn of veteran centre-half Marco Materazzi to head over from a free-kick.

Inter were now rampant and Pandev played a one-two with Milito before rounding Akinfeev but Aleksei Berezutski got back to hack his shot off the line on 71 minutes.

Sneijder had a golden opportunity to double the lead on 84 minutes as Eto’o found him free on the left hand side of the area but instead of shooting left footed he pulled the ball back onto his right and then fired it wide of the near post.

Two minutes later and Akinfeev was a double hero punching away a rifled effort from Cambiasso and then deflecting a rocket from Stankovic over the bar.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Quick Report: Inter Milan 1-0 CSKA Moscow

(GSM) – A solitary strike by Diego Milito gave Inter Milan a slight edge in their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, as they beat CSKA Moscow 1-0 in the first leg at the San Siro.

Both CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and Inter goalkeeper Júlio César were forced into key stops in the opening quarter hour, but it was the Italian champions that enjoyed the better of the possession early on.

The back-and-forth match continued early in the second half, but the Nerazzurri broke the Russians’ resistance in the 65th minute as Milito took a pass from Wesley Sneijder to slot home.

Goran Pandev nearly made it 2-0 when his shot was cleared off the line by Vassily Berezutski six minutes later, and the Russians never could muster a good scoring chance after that.

It will still be all to play for, however, in the second leg next week in Moscow.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Quick Report: Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

(GSM) – Cesc Fabregas’ late penalty earned Arsenal a dramatic 2-2 against 10-man Barcelona on Wednesay in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie.

The first half was dreadful for Arsenal as both William Gallas and Andrei Arshavin were forced off injured, but Barça’s many attempts on goal were thwarted by the defense and goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, including from Lionel Messi’s free kick late in the half.

Parity lasted less than 30 seconds in the second half, however, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic fired the visitors in front with a deft chip of Almunia.

The Swede doubled the advantage just short of the hour mark, taking a pass from Xavi before slamming home.

But Arsenal were far from done as substitute Theo Walcott pulled a goal back just three minutes after coming on, taking a neat pass from Nicklas Bendtner before slotting home.

Then, the tie turned on its head with six minutes to go when Carles Puyol’s professional foul on Fabregas earned the Gunners a penalty.

The Spaniard stepped up and hit his spot kick right back up the middle, beating Víctor Valdés to keep the tie very much in doubt.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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AC Milan make bid for Getafe ace

AC Milan have reportedly made a €10million bid for Getafe midfielder Pedro Leon.

Leon has been a hit at Getafe since joining the club from Valladolid last year in a €4million deal.

The 23-year-old has a €10million buy-out clause in his contract and AC Milan are reportedly ready to pay out the clause, according to Sportmediaset.

Leon’s contract with Getafe expires in the summer of 2014.

Tottenham and Manchester City are also interested in the midfielder, according to Spanish newspaper AS.

[Source: Sportmediaset]

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Histon starlet handed Fulham trial

Fulham have handed a trial to Histon starlet Callum Stewart.

The 19-year-old defender has caught the eye of Fulham scouts, according to reports.

“Callum has gone down there for three days’ training,” Histon boss Alan Lewer told the Cambridge News.

“Malcolm’s seen him play a couple of times and has been asking me about him.

“He’s gone there to train with their Under-19s and to see if he can cope with that, and Fulham will see if they like him.

“Callum was at Ipswich before he joined us and he enjoys the full-time training, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

[Source: Cambridge News]

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Fabregas fit for Arsenal, while Henry only makes Barca bench

Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas was passed fit to start in Wednesday’s Champions League clash against Barcelona, but former Gunners striker Thierry Henry only made the bench for the Spanish club.

Fabregas – who came through the Barcelona Academy – had missed training on Tuesday in the hope an extra 24 hours rest would allow him time to recover from the bruised knee and leg suffered during Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Birmingham.

The additional recovery time paid dividends as the Spain midfielder was declared fit to face his old club.

There was a further boost for Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger as French defender William Gallas returned to the team for the first time since February after recovering from a calf injury ahead of schedule.

Barca coach Josep Guardiola left Henry among his substitutes as the France striker returned to the Emirates Stadium for the first time since his 2007 move to the Nou Camp.

Guardiola was without injured midfielder Andres Iniesta but Xavi and Gerard Pique were declared fit after injury scares.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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Fabregas recovers from injury to start against Barca

(GSM) – Cesc Fabregas will start in Arsenal’s Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona after recovering from a leg injury.

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger gave the Spanish playmaker until an hour before kickoff at Emirates Stadium to prove his fitness to play the defending European champions.

The Spain midfielder was hurt in a 1-1 Premier League draw against Birmingham on Saturday.

Fabregas is Arsenal’s leading scorer this season with 18 goals in 35 matches from central midfield

Wed 31 March, 2010
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England need a fully-fit Wayne Rooney in South Africa

Wayne-RooneyThe ankle injury Wayne Rooney picked up in Manchester United’s 2-1 Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich could wreck England’s World Cup hopes. It’s estimated that the United hot shot will be out between two and four weeks.

It could have been much worse for both the English champions and for England. However if he does miss four weeks then it doesn’t give him much recuperation time.

Vital

Unfortunately for United and England the injury has hit Rooney at a crucial time. United face their main title rivals Chelsea on Saturday in one of their biggest games of the season. He will also miss the second leg of United’s Champions League tie with Bayern.

The next few weeks and games could have a huge bearing on how successful the season is for United. Some would argue that United are not a one man team but you can’t deny the fact that Rooney’s 34 goals this season have proved vital.

Without Rooney United is not the same force as with the former- Everton star. He is enjoying by far his best season of his career and it’s unfortunate that he has picked up this injury at such an important time of the season.

England

With just over two months to go before the World Cup Fabio Capello must be sweating over the striker. England boss Fabio Capello sticks by his idea of only selecting fully-fit players. Rooney now has two months to get fully-fit ahead of the big tournament.

There is no doubt that the United striker will do everything he can to get on that plane. I’m sure he will be in the England squad for South Africa 2010. The only concern I’d have is if he wasn’t fully-fit and struggled for fitness.

Rooney played at the 2006 World Cup despite not being fully-fit and he never really performed to the best of his ability. He failed to find the net in Germany and it showed that he wasn’t really ready for the tournament.

The injury he picked up ahead of World Cup 2006 was also in April. Let’s just hope he makes a better recovery from this injury as England and the World Cup needs a fit and in-form Rooney. Rooney is one of the best players on the planet and for him not to get a chance for play at South Africa would be disappointing.

Special

There are not too many players like Wayne Rooney in world football, let alone in the English game. It would be impossible for England to find a replacement for Rooney. It’s like Argentina losing Leo Messi, Spain losing Fernando Torres or Brazil losing Kaka. Although they would be replaced, the team wouldn’t be the same without them.

Timing

England have a history of star players coming in to big tournaments not fully-fit. David Beckham was in the squad for World Cup 2002 when not fully-fit and underperformed as a result, despite England getting into the quarter-finals.

Like I mentioned before Rooney himself entered the last World Cup having spent two months out sidelined with a foot injury. He never regained full fitness and England again exited at the quarter-finals after Rooney was dismissed for a stamp on Portuguese defender Ricardo Carvalho.

He has matured greatly since 2006 and has learnt to control his temper. Since he has matured his game has gone from strength to strength. This improvement has lead to the outstanding form that we have seen this season.

Strength

I can see Wayne Rooney coming back stronger from this injury and hopefully the World Cup won’t come too soon for him. What I do know about Rooney is that he is now strong both physically and mentally. I can see him bouncing back and starring for England in South Africa this summer.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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England leapfrog France as Spain retain number one spot in FIFA rankings

(GSM) – England have moved ahead of France to seventh in the latest FIFA world rankings as Spain continue to hold on to their number one spot.

A number of changes in rankings took place due to the devaluation of results from last year.

Portugal moved up two places to fourth while Croatia, who failed to qualify for the World Cup, moved up one place to 10th.

Carlos Queiroz’s Portuguese side, who needed a play-off win over Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach the 2010 World Cup, moved above Italy and Germany, who dropped one place to fifth and sixth respectively.

Brazil and Holland retain their number two and three spots respectively, as Scotland have moved up four places to 41st position.

Wales’ poor showing in their World Cup qualifying campaign has cost them one place as they drop to 77th place.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, narrowly managed to remain inside the top 50, despite dropping 11 places.

Despite an unbeaten run in their World Cup 2010 qualifying group campaign, Republic of Ireland drop four places to 44th.

Wed 31 March, 2010
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