Arsenal 0, Barcelona 2: Lethal Messi gives Gunners deja vu

 
Frank Dalleres
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Arsenal FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg
Messi's double put Arsenal on the brink of Champions League elimination (Source: Getty)

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger blamed his team’s failure to learn from previous mistakes after Barcelona condemned them to an all-but certain Champions League exit at the first knockout round for a sixth year in a row.

Two goals in the last 20 minutes from star Lionel Messi, the second a penalty, decided this first leg and swept the Catalan giants to the brink of eliminating the Gunners for the third time in seven seasons.

Midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and striker Olivier Giroud tested goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen but Arsenal failed to score for a fourth time in six home games and will carry only the slimmest of hopes into next month’s return leg.

For the fourth straight year they will go into the second half of a last-16 tie having lost the home leg, and Wenger was anguished not just by the familiar predicament but also the manner in which his team were undone.

“They are better than us and I believe everybody knows that but we could have won the game tonight if we had kept the discipline until the end. Once again like against Monaco [last year] we were caught in exactly the same way,” he said.

“They are European champions and world champions, but I felt there was room to beat them tonight – that is the biggest regret I have. Sometimes you can lose against a team and you think there is nothing to do but tonight there was room to beat them.

“Barcelona is through 95 per cent, certainly, but we want to go there and play. We are Arsenal football club and we won’t go there and have absolutely no chance. But what we want now is to focus on our next game.”

Wenger accused Barca players of attempting to influence the referee – "they are tricky; they never go down silent" -- while opposite number Luis Enrique denied defender Gerard Pique had engineered a late booking that rules him out of the second leg.

Arsenal contained Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez for 70 minutes but could not capitalise on their own half-chances and, as the game opened up, eventually succumbed to Barcelona's all-star attacking triumvirate.

Wenger’s men were content to let Barca monopolise possession early on yet looked the more dangerous team, Aaron Ramsey seeing a shot blocked from a Mesut Ozil cut-back at the end of a sweeping counter-attack.

The pace of Alexis Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain had the visitors retreating, and the latter had the Gunners' best chance of the first half when another swift break saw the ball fall to him 12 yards out, but his shot was straight at Ter Stegen.

Barca’s fearsome strikeforce began to bare its teeth as the opening period wore on, and Messi squandered a free-kick and headed over before Nacho Monreal was forced to clear a Suarez cross-shot from the Arsenal goalmouth.

Suarez wasted the half’s clearest chance with its very last action when Sergio Busquets’s lofted diagonal pass found Dani Alves and he volleyed a first-time centre back across goal. Unmarked and six yards out, the Uruguayan glanced his header wide.

Petr Cech saved from Neymar with his legs, Giroud’s downward header brought a smart stop from Ter Stegen and Suarez dragged a low shot just wide from a tight angle as the second half began in end-to-end fashion.

Barca looked increasingly likely to capitalise on the stretched play and so it proved on 71 minutes when Suarez broke down the left, he nutmegged Koscielny and Neymar squared to Messi, who waited for Cech to go to ground before lifting over him.

Suddenly the visitors were rampant and Suarez hit the post before substitute Mathieu Flamini made an instant impact by felling Messi and the Argentina No10 won another battle of wits with Cech, this time from the spot.

It might have been worse had Cech not tipped a Neymar header over in stoppage time, but Arsenal’s hopes of a first quarter-final since 2010 look bleak even before the trip to Camp Nou on 16 March.