Lionel Messi magic lifts Barcelona to decisive UCL first-leg win at Arsenal
LONDON -- Here are three thoughts on Barcelona's 2-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates in their Champions League last-16 first leg.
1. Messi makes the difference
Lionel Messi gave Barcelona the edge over Arsenal on Tuesday in their latest European clash, as he scored two goals to turn a close-fought game into a resounding 2-0 victory. The Argentinian opened his account after 71 minutes, when smart work from Luis Suarez and Neymar caught Arsenal on the break. The Brazilian was allowed to run into the area and square the ball to Messi, who stroked it past Petr Cech for his first goal against the veteran keeper in six career meetings.
Arsenal had been holding their own, but the goal that truly killed their hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals came 12 minutes later. Mathieu Flamini, on the pitch just 47 seconds as a substitute and yet to touch the ball, chopped Messi down in the penalty area after Per Mertesacker failed to clear the lines. Barcelona's talisman converted the spot-kick with ease.
Between the goals, Messi could have scored another, and Luis Suarez hit the post, wasting a golden opportunity inside the six-yard box. The European champions never played with anywhere near their usual fluency. They were dominant for the opening period of the second half and after the goal but were otherwise matched by Arsene Wenger's side.
Meanwhile, Arsenal will be disappointed. They threatened early, when Aaron Ramsey had a shot blocked by Javier Mascherano after a lovely interchange with Mesut Ozil. The German imposed himself on the game in the first half by finding room in the inside-left channel. He set up Hector Bellerin after 22 minutes, but the full-back's powder-puff shot rebounded to Oxlade-Chamberlain. The winger could not get the ball out from under his feet and could only offer a tame shot.
Arsenal were on top -- perhaps too much so. They over-committed on the half-hour, which allowed Messi the chance to break and bear down on the back four. Francis Coquelin was lucky to escape a booking for bringing the Argentinian down from behind. It was a sign of things to come. Arsenal were unable to keep the world's best player quiet for the full 90 minutes.
2. Did Wenger get his XI right?
Wenger started the game with Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, which was surprising. That meant Theo Walcott was on the bench, a clear signal that the home side were keen to stay compact. Walcott's pace might stretch the game, but Barcelona love wide-open matches. The 23-year-old occupied the inside right channel when Barca had possession, thus discouraging the away side from using Jordi Alba as an outlet.
Arsenal were disciplined and refused to be drawn into the opposition half when Mascherano and Gerard Pique were on the ball, which forced Barcelona to pass into a congested midfield. At times, Arsenal had all 10 outfield players within 30 yards of Cech. It wasn't quite parking the bus, but it was as near as Wenger will come to that sort of tactic. His side limited Barcelona to one chance in the opening exchanges: an unchallenged Suarez header from a free kick. It frustrated the La Liga champions; there were a number of heated exchanges and even a bout of finger-pointing.
Aaron Ramsey and Coquelin were impressive in matching Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, even though they had to be alert for Messi dropping deep to pick up the ball. For most of the first half, they were the better side. With a more clinical finisher, they might have taken more away from the game. Olivier Giroud is very much a blunt instrument and lacks elegance, compared to Barca's razor-sharp front trio, but he can be effective. He gave Mascherano a nervous moment early on and sent Dani Alves into a panic at the back post.
Barcelona had their best spell in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, but the game began to get chippy. Alves went down after a fairly innocuous challenger from Giroud, and the two squared up, with the defender's forehead pressing against the Frenchman's chin. It spurred the Arsenal centre-forward into action; he soon shrugged off Mascherano and produced a fine downward header that Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was glad to scramble away. Then Messi took charge and gave Arsenal a lesson in finishing.
3. Suarez lacking bite
Suarez could have been playing in an Arsenal shirt, had Wenger been more sensible and offered £60 million for the Uruguayan and not the insulting £40 million buyout fee plus £1 -- an act that infuriated Liverpool. The Arsenal fans were angry too. They booed Suarez throughout.
The Barcelona forward was out of sorts, though. He missed an unchallenged header from a Messi free kick early in the match and then squandered two chances close to halftime. The first came when Neymar and Messi combined to find Suarez on the left side of the box. He was wide, but in his best form, he would have shot rather than attempting a pull-back.
The other miss was worse. Alves sent over a delectable cross, and Suarez had the time and space to direct his header into Cechs net, but unaccountably, the Barcelona forward headed wide inside the 6-yard box. Midway through the second half, he again made a poor choice in the 18-yard box and shot across goal when a pull-back to Messi might have been more sensible.
There is no doubting his appetite for the game -- the 29-year-old was a constant source of irritation to Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny -- but this was a game into which the Uruguayan never quite managed to get his teeth.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.