ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger toasted “a special football night” after late goals from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin earned them a momentous Champions League triumph against the side he rates the best in the world.

The Gunners were headed for a deserved defeat in this last-16 first leg contest, owing to a ruthless first half David Villa finish, until Wenger threw all caution to the wind for the final quarter of an hour.

Van Persie punished Victor Valdes for leaving his near post unguarded by lashing home an equaliser from the tightest of angles, and Arshavin completed the comeback with seven minutes to spare with a calm steered finish after a rapier-like team breakaway.

“I am hugely delighted because I believe it was a special football night,” said Wenger. “The game promised a lot and absolutely fulfilled the promises. I’m very proud for Arsenal because everyone urged us to play differently to our nature. I believe more than pride it can strengthen the belief in our philosophy, and that’s most important.”

After a flying start that reaped no reward, Arsenal were gradually passed to death by the Catalan side, who had lost just once in 35 games before last night, until Wenger withdrew Alex Song for Arshavin and went for broke in the closing stages.

“I wanted to go for it offensively,” he added. “It could have backfired, to 2-0 or 3-0 to them, but it worked. We had to take a gamble.”

Arsenal’s comeback echoed last year’s quarter-final, in which they scored twice late on to snatch a draw at home. The return leg in Spain, however, saw Lionel Messi score four times in a brutal rout, and Wenger is refusing to accept favourites status ahead of the trip to Camp Nou in three weeks.

“Barcelona are still favourites but now we know we can beat them,” he said. “Tonight’s result gives us a chance to go to Barcelona with belief. We played the best team in the world, and we managed to beat them.”

Gunners captain Cesc Fabregas went even further than his manager in his praise for his former club, but refused to get carried away.

He said: “They are the best side in football’s history in my opinion. It’s a nice victory. It will give confidence to the team but that’s all.”

0-1: Messi punishes Arsenal for allowing him to run at them by releasing Villa, who coolly sweeps a finish under the advancing Szczesny in the 26th minute

1-1: With 12 minutes left Van Persie finally converts a chance, and it’s from the tightest of angles, his low drive somehow sneaking in at the near post

2-1: Wilshere feeds Fabregas whose perfect pass sets Nasri free, the Frenchman cleverly passes square to Arshavin who sidefoots home with Barca all at sea