Messi puts Gunners to sword
(Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate)
Champions League Round of 16
For a brief moment last night Arsenal dared to dream.
For a brief moment after Sergio Busquets' own goal in the second half, levelling Lionel Messi's opener, mission impossible seemed on for Arsene Wenger's men. Calamity and controversy then ensued.
Robin van Persie was dismissed, earning a second yellow for what was deemed 'kicking the ball away' when he was simply carrying through with a shot. He had been given offside, but the gap between Massimo Busacca's whistle and the Dutchman's shot was only a second.
Arsenal railed against the injustice before returning to defend, and defend and defend. If Van Persie's red was harsh, nothing could deny Barcelona their victory. As well as Arsenal defended, the pressure told, Xavi and Lionel Messi adding to the Argentine's elegant first-half effort.
And so the nightmare continues for Arsenal fans, their sleep haunted by this Barcelona side, this team of all the talents. The mighty Catalans had defeated them in the 2006 final and in last season's quarter-finals, so this was the most painful of Groundhog Days for the visiting supporters up in the gods. For the Premier League, the sight of the second-placed team in England failing to La Liga's finest was dispiriting.
After the dismay of the Carling Cup final and disappointment of dropping points to Sunderland, Arsenal's spirits will be further deflated. They now head to Old Trafford for Saturday's FA Cup quarter-final with the possibility of tumbling out of a third competition in a fortnight.
Right until the cusp of half-time, Arsenal had held out, but those visiting fans who picked up hire cars from Alamo must have guessed what was coming. This was the anticipated siege, the expected masterclass from those professors of possession Messi and Andres Iniesta, who combined so devastatingly for the goal. Although Arsenal had defended well until then, Messi's elegant strike was the least Barcelona deserved.
If the half ended on a chastening note, the game had begun with some uplifting news for Arsenal. Van Persie was declared fit to spearhead the 4-2-3-1 system, but Arsenal first had to get the ball, a constant struggle.
For a short period, the Gunners made almost as many fouls as touches.
Gael Clichy quickly followed through on Xavi. Two of their defenders, Laurent Koscielny and Bacara Sagna were cautioned within 30 minutes, while poor Szczesny departed, having damaged a finger dealing with a Dani Alves free-kick. Arsenal briefly settled, earning that sweetest of sounds for visitors here, catcalls cascading down from the tiers of this magnificent monument to Catalan pride. The derision signalled a rare period of Arsenal possession.
Normal service was soon resumed. Barcelona's formidable high-tempo game saw them pressing hard and high, testing Arsenal's technique under relentless pressure.
Some of Barcelona's interplay was mesmerising, refined first touches cushioning the ball towards friendly feet. Danger always bubbled away. Johan Djourou dispossessed Messi, but then slipped, and only Jack Wilshere's sliding tackle stopped the Argentinian's pass reaching David Villa.
Samir Nasri was tracking back constantly, diving in to steer the ball away from the rampaging Dani Alves. Back came the Brazilian again, crossing to David Villa, whose first touch was poor, for once. Barcelona were relentless, their pressure precipitating errors of judgement by Arsenal. After 15 minutes, Koscielny brought down Pedro 30 yards out. Alves bent the ball around the human barricade, bringing a stooping stop from Szczesny.
The Pole winced as his hands hit the floor, the pain shooting up into his left wrist. Barcelona fans bayed their disapproval as Szczesny was attended to, but his distress was real, his finger dislocated, and Manuel Almunia jogged on. The omens suddenly got even darker. The Spaniard had conceded seven goals in 200 minutes against Barcelona before last night. It was soon to be eight in 227.
Until Messi broke through, Arsenal's resilience was admirable. Wilshere was working overtime in the centre, attempting to put out the fires fanned by Xavi and Iniesta. He showed good skill in turning away from Xavi, demonstrating his lack of awe at this exalted occasion. When Alves then caught Samir Nasri with a dangerous scissors tackle, Wilshere confronted the Brazilian, desisting only when pushed away by Javier Mascherano.
Still Barcelona's magicians conjured up special moments with the ball. Iniesta, off-balance, flicked the ball effortlessly to Villa.
Messi dribbled through the middle. Then Iniesta set up Villa, whose low shot was saved by Almunia. The attacks were coming from all angle, menace now emanating from the defenders. Adriano struck a post and then Eric Abidal charged through.
Messi tested Almunia, but was merely setting his sights. Three minutes into added time, Fabregas gave the ball away and Barcelona recycled it brutally.
Iniesta played a sumptuous pass through to Messi, who flicked the ball over Almunia and then volleyed it home.
Arsenal fought back. When Nasri lifted in a corner, Abou Diaby rose high, but the ball clipped Busquets, wrong-footing Valdes. Scarcely had Arsenal finished celebrating then Van Persie was dismissed. Sent through on goal by Fabregas, the Dutchman was flagged offside, but he continued, shooting wide. The merciless Swiss official, Busacca, showed yellow then red. Cruel.
Depleted in numbers if not spirit, Arsenal were soon put the sword.
Iniesta and Villa worked the ball beautifully through the middle to Xavi, who kept his composure and footing before beating Almunia. When Pedro was then fouled by Koscielny, Messi converted the calmest of penalties. (© Daily Telegraph, London)