Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes and thinking ‘not again’ when the Champions League last-16 draw was made.
Their team’s reward for beating Olimpiacos 3-0 in Athens to secure a place in the knockout stages was yet another tie against Barcelona.
With one win in eight Champions League encounters since 1999, and Barca’s formidable front three in fine form this season, the omens were not good.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had scored 91 goals between them this season ahead of this week’s first-leg clash at the Emirates Stadium, leaving the red-and-white half of north London fearing the worst.
And yet, Arsenal could take encouragement from the fact they’d had the patience and killer instinct to beat Bayern Munich 2-0 at home in the group stage, when Robert Lewandowski was Europe’s hottest striker.
However, this time out, the Gunners’ defence was facing arguably the current three best players in the world. For 70 tense minutes, the Catalan magicians were frustrated and contained, but they still ran out 2-0 winners.
“Not a single errant touch ever allows the ball to go astray for someone to nick it off their foot”
Messi plays as if he knows at some point he will find a way through. It’s like watching the best kid in the playground; he plays without a care in the world, he knows he will get the better of you eventually because he is that good.
The Argentine entices his pursuers to get close to his body, skin tight, before a exchanging quickfire passes with his closest team mate and suddenly he is the other side of his opponent in a blink of an eye.
At times. you don’t see the ball, the movement is so quick. Sometimes you’re left wondering has he even seen it himself?
The trouble for any team facing the European champions is that no matter how hard or difficult a pass that they receive, every player kills the ball. Not a single errant touch ever allows it to go astray for someone to nick it off their foot.
Arsenal managed to keep Suarez quiet for most of their defeat to Barcelona, although even on a quiet night he still managed to thunder a shot against the base of the post and glance a header just wide. Barca’s threat mostly came from Messi and Neymar.
Neymar had his work cut out against former La Masia graduate Hector Bellerin. But when he did trick his way around the right back, the Emirates crowd held its breath as Neymar cut in from the left hand side with just Petr Cech to beat.
“The three strikers came out and warmed up together by themselves, a close-knit bond that only helps them create moments of pure genius”
But the Arsenal keeper’s outstretched leg blocked the shot – another life-saver from the former Chelsea man.
Per Mertesacker was supposed to be ‘exposed’ at the back, but although his lack of pace at times hinders Arsenal’s defence, his reading of the game is hugely important and he was forever intercepting passes and through-balls that would have cut Arsenal to shreds.
Laurent Koscienly seemed to be tasked with hassling Messi off the ball. At times he came off worse, but the odd challenge and tackle won was greeted with a huge encouraging roar from the supporters, especially if it sprung Arsenal into a counter attack.
Hard work and patience were required by the hosts, and it seemed to be paying off until an attack broke down leaving their backline exposed. Memories of the counter-attacking goals scored by Monaco a year previous flooded back as the three amigos combined.
“In a dangerous area, Flamini’s decision-making is more often than not the stuff of nightmares”
Suarez fed Neymar who tore down the left with Bellerin trailing in his wake. He cut in again with Cech to beat but, perhaps mindful of his earlier miss, squared to the amazingly unnoticed Messi who, with all the time in the world, beat Cech. The energy inside the ground was evaporated within seconds.
Arsenal had fallen victim an attacking front three that possess not only extraordinary talent but a real spirit of camaraderie.
The relationship between the trio is the nucleus of their formidable form on the pitch.
When the Barcelona team came out to warm up, the three strikers came out and warmed up together by themselves, a close-knit bond that only helps the players create moments of pure genius.
For the neutral, it’s a real pleasure to see this amount of talent on the pitch. For opposition supporters, all you can do is sit tight and hope for the best.
The second goal came from the spot after a stupid foul by Mathieu Flamini.
He regularly enjoys telling experienced defenders what to do or where to go, but when the time comes for him to do the right thing in a dangerous area, his decision-making is more often than not the stuff of nightmares.
Messi dispatched the penalty and left Arsenal with a mountain to climb for the sixth year on the trot in the last 16. Time to focus on the Premier League…
Image courtesy of Nacho from Flickr Creative Commons