Arsenal trade punches before Barcelona move in for kill

Mathieu Flamini gives away penalty to all but end hopes of progress

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates with team-mate Neymar and Luis Suarez after scoring their  first goal of  Champions League match against Arsenal  at The Emirates.  Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates with team-mate Neymar and Luis Suarez after scoring their first goal of Champions League match against Arsenal at The Emirates. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA Wire

 

Arsenal 0 Barcelona 2

For Arsenal, it was a lesson about how brutal football can be at this level. For long spells, they subdued Barcelona in a way that few had anticipated. They chased and they harried and they were matching the most beautifully constructed club side there has ever been until that exhilarating spell of play when Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez suddenly clicked into gear to remind us why there is no other forward line with their devastating gifts.

They took their time to get going but once those three took control it was a blur of speed and colour that Arsenal could not contain. Messi scored twice and, for Mathieu Flamini, the night took on the form of a personal ordeal. The Frenchman, a substitute, had been on the pitch barely a minute when he scythed down Messi with a wretched challenge to give away the penalty that made it 2-0. With a one-goal deficit, Arsenal’s hopes of turning the game upside-down at Camp Nou could have been classified as minimal. With two goals to make up, it might need a football miracle in the return leg.

The irony is that Arsène Wenger’s team had actually played with great spirit and togetherness for much of the night. Yet teams can do that against Barcelona and still suffer. Arsenal would have suffered even more if Suárez had not struck a post with a golden chance to add to the scoring and by the end it had turned into a game of keep-ball for Barcelona when, for long spells, they had found Wenger’s men to be difficult opponents.

It certainly took Barcelona some time to adapt to the way their opponents were lining up. Arsenal’s tactic was devoted to the idea of preventing Luis Enrique’s team from bringing the ball out of defence unchallenged. Another manager might have packed defence and hoped to catch Barça on a rare breakaway. Yet it would jar with Wenger’s principles to base his entire strategy around conservatism.

Mesut Özil’s starting position was essentially that of a second striker and though it would be an exaggeration to say the high pressing style rattled Barça, it was rare to see this assortment of grade-A footballers playing with so little cohesion. Petr Cech did not touch the ball inside the opening quarter of an hour and it was not until the final moments of the first half that the Messi-Neymar-Suárez triumvirate started to put together the beautifully choreographed passing that inspires so much trepidation.

Wenger’s methodology was working but it was also true that Arsenal needed to make the most of their chances during the spells when Messi, Neymar, Suárez and all the rest flickered only sporadically. Aaron Ramsey could not adjust his feet quickly enough when Özil’s cutback gave him the game’s first opportunity but it was always going to be a night of limited opportunities for Arsenal and they might come to rue the lack of ruthlessness, for instance, from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when Héctor Bellerín’s shot was deflected into his path midway through the first half.

The follow-up shot went straight to Marc-André ter Stegen and it was not the only example of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s occasional wastefulness before he was withdrawn with an injury, having over-run the ball and taken a whack from Javier Mascherano as he tried to retrieve it.

Overall, Arsenal had found a defensive structure and tactical plan that many might have assumed was beyond them against such refined opponents. Yet there were still passages of the game, inevitably, when Messi shimmered with menace. At times he would just amble around, giving the impression he was somehow dislocated from the game.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, it was a deception. Suddenly he would be picking up speed, scurrying past opponents and, in one instance, slipping the ball through Laurent Koscielny’s legs for a nutmeg that was so exquisitely delivered he might have been tempted to ruffle his opponent’s hair on the way.

There were a couple of let-offs just before the interval, particularly when Suárez flashed a header wide from Dani Alves’s wonderfully delivered cross, but if the home supporters had anticipated it might be a night of near-unremitting pressure they must have been pleasantly surprised by the way Wenger’s men set out to show they could hold their own.

There was no inferiority complex whatsoever and shortly before the hour Jordi Alba was living dangerously when he pushed his head into Olivier Giroud’s chin during a flare-up close to the touchline. By that stage, Barça were starting to play with a greater attacking edge but still a good notch or two down from their most exhilarating peaks.

Petr Cech had to charge off his goal-line to keep out Neymar after the Brazilian was sent clear by a typically astute piece of vision from Andrés Iniesta, but then Arsenal came back and Giroud’s downward header had Ter Stegen sprawling to his right to claw the ball away. Perhaps Arsenal were too emboldened during that period when they started attacking with greater numbers and left themselves vulnerable to the counter-attack.

No team spring out of defence more exquisitely than Barça and there was something almost mesmerising about the passage of play that began with Gerard Piqué heading the ball out of his area and ended with Neymar squaring a pass for Messi to open the scoring. Neymar’s exchange with Suárez in the build-up had sliced Arsenal open and after that, Wenger’s team quickly lost their direction.

(Guardian service)

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