Arsenal's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League quarterfinals are hanging by a thread, with the Gunners having been beaten 2-0 by Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday evening. It was a plucky performance from Arséne Wenger's men, though two silly errors were punished by two Lionel Messi goals, leaving the hosts with a nigh-on impossible second leg task.
Barcelona dominated possession throughout the first half, though Arsenal impressively managed to limit their chances to almost nothing. The Gunners sat deep and soaked up pressure, before looking to hit their opponents on the counter-attack. The plan seemed to be working, and they created the game's first clear-cut chance midway through the first half. A lucky bounce fell for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the area, though he fired straight at Marc-André ter Stegen from point-blank range.
It proved to be the best chance of the half, with Barça not managing to carve themselves an opening until the final few minutes. A sloppy giveaway by Aaron Ramsey broke for Neymar, though his square ball was intercepted before Luis Suárez could pounce. Moments later the Uruguayan did get his opportunity, though he managed to head a perfect Dani Alves cross over the bar with the goal gaping.
Arsenal made an ominous start to the second half, with their defense sliced open again within five minutes. This time is was Neymar with a great chance, though Petr Čech got down to keep the score level. Barcelona appeared to be growing in confidence. But to their credit, the Gunners managed to respond. Just short of the hour, ter Stegen was called upon to parry an Olivier Giroud header around the post.
Into the final 20 minutes, it looked increasingly like the game would end scoreless. But perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, Arsenal switched off and made a catastrophic slip. Caught out on the counter for the first time in the game, the Gunners' defense was sliced through with terrifying pace. Messi had been almost anonymous for the match, but he needed no second invitation to slot home after taking receipt of a square ball from the left. It was a bitter pill for Arsenal to swallow.
They charged forward looking for an equalizer, almost at the expense of a second goal. After some penalty box pinball Suárez found himself bearing down on the Gunners' net, though squeezed his shot against the near post with Čech narrowing the angle. It kept Arsenal in the match, but not for long.
Inside the final 10 minutes, the Gunners' substitute Mathieu Flamini -- brought on to tighten things up near the end of the match -- made an inexplicable lunge at the shin of Messi. A penalty was awarded and the Argentine converted. The tie's not completely over, but it's very difficult to envisage a way back for Arsenal.
Arsenal: Petr Čech; Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Héctor Bellerín; Francis Coquelin (Mathieu Flamini 82'), Aaron Ramsey; Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Theo Walcott 50'); Olivier Giroud (Danny Welbeck 72').
Barcelona: Marc-André ter Stegen; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves; Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić; Neymar, Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi.
Goals: Lionel Messi (71', pen. 83')
1 Barça are brutal
Okay, so we've actually known this for quite a while. Ages, in fact. But this performance was as cruel as any they've delivered in recent times. Arsenal turned in a very good performance and were punished for their first real defensive slip with only 15 minutes remaining. The grim inevitability of Messi's goal when he was sent through one-on-one with Čech embodied this Barça team perfectly and it's why it's going to be nigh-on impossible to stop them from defending their crown.
2. Arsenal showed impressive mettle ... but are still Arsenal
The major criticism that has been leveled against Arsenal over the last decade has been that they're just not strong or organized enough defensively. But on a few rare occasions, they've proven the critique wrong. This was almost one of them. However, instead of going down as a performance of courage and tenacity, this will go down as just another near miss. Tragically, classically Arsenal.
3. Mathieu Flamini?!?!
Sigh. Arsène, bringing on a solid defensive midfielder is a good idea when your team are beginning to tire against Barcelona. But not if it's a like-for-like switch and definitely not if the player coming on is Mathieu Flamini.