Neymar, Suarez and Messi combine to send brave Arsenal spinning out of the Champions League
PUBLISHED: 21:57 16 March 2016 | UPDATED: 08:31 18 March 2016
A spirited performance from a determined Arsenal team tonight here at a wet Nou Camp was no antidote to the sublime skills of Barcelona’s magical forward trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez as they triumphed 3-1 – sending Arsene Wenger’s men spinning out of the Champions League.
Although the visitors showed courage and character in taking the fight to Barca they were eclipsed by three moments that everyone here will never forget – as superb goals from the Brazilian, the Uruguayan, and the little Argentine - eclipsed the Gunners efforts as Wenger’s men were blasted out of the last 16 for the sixth year in a row.
Even a superb Mohamed Elneny strike after half time to equalise – sending Gunners hopes soaring they could somehow achieve an upset to match anything in their long history sadly faded – as a gutsy showing just wasn’t enough for Wenger’s braves.
The night had started promisingly for the increasingly beleaguered Londoners as defender Laurent Koscielny returned in place of Per Mertesacker at centre-half. What was more surprising was teen Alex Iwobi making his first Champions League start.
Nacho Monreal, Hector Bellerin, Mathieu Flamini, Danny Welbeck were also in the first eleven, which meant no room for Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers, Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud and Joel Campbell – who all started Sunday’s miserable FA Cup exit against Watford.
Barca manager Luis Enrique – unsurprisingly – named among his starters Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, with centre-back Gerard Pique suspended.
The statistics were intimidating. No defeats in 37 matches at the Nou Camp – with only three teams in 289 games played at Barca’s fortress defeating them by two clear goals.
In fact, Messi and Suarez had scored 78 goals for Barca this season – seven more than Arsenal’s 71 in all competitions.
The additional information the magical Argentine has scored more goals against Arsenal in this competition – eight before tonight – only served to highlight the task facing the Gunners.
It was announced this grand Catalan club are to extend the capacity of the Nou Camp to 107,000 over the next few years. The news they’re also to build a roof came far too late to save the soaked multitudes in this imposing amphitheatre tonight as the rain lashed down – with the question raised how would The Arsenal fare on a wet and windy night at the Nou Camp?
We were to find out.
Barcelona found their rhythm in seconds as they eased the ball around on a wet and greasy surface immediately putting the visitors on the back foot – even if an early Iwobi shot forced a corner which came to nothing.
There is a feeling that those players in red and white lack the courage to play at the rarefied level those who watch them regularly know they are capable of – until they have no option but to do so.
Mesut Ozil has shown a willingness to apply a far greater work rate this season to add to his undoubted class – which was evidenced as he fired in a left-footed shot fizzing just wide of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal on ten minutes.
Four minutes later Elneny tried his luck as another low shot went fizzing narrowly past the post.
To see the Gunners fight to deny Barca’s gilded team time and space on the ball was a delight. As was David Ospina’s superb reaction save that tipped a fierce Lionel Messi shot over the bar when it looked easier for him to score.
Yet it was only to delay the inevitable as Neymar slotted the ball past Petr Cech’s replacement on 18 minutes. The strike was initiated by Luis Suarez on the right who fed the ball intelligently into Neymar’s path. With right-back Hector Bellerin out of position the Brazilian strode purposefully into the box before slipping the ball past the Columbian keeper to make it 1-0 to Barcelona.
The Gunners looked visibly deflated as their hard work and good intentions from kick-off were crushed. Yet they still pushed forward and on 26 minutes Mathieu Flamini tried his luck with a 25 yard shot which narrowly arrowed over ter Stegen’s top left hand corner.
On 34 minutes with the Russian referee Sergei Karasev – who exerted a sensible influence on the game – awarding an inconsequential free-kick just in the Arsenal half, defender Gabriel showing an astonishing lack of self control as he senselessly berated the official. The man in yellow simply reached for his pocket and gave him a card the same colour as his shirt.
Such stupidity was hard to fathom - although with memories of the rash two-footed challenge on Watford’s Troy Deeney perhaps it wasn’t that difficult. Either way concerns are rapidly accumulating regarding the centre-half.
On 39 minutes a Sanchez header from an excellent Bellerin cross also flashed just wide of the Barca post as observers began to wonder if ter Stegen’s goal was leading a charmed existence.
With Iwobi’s youthful exuberance surprising the Barca backline he fed Danny Welbeck who fired his shot wide when well placed moments later – although Javier Mascherano snapping eagerly at his heels didn’t aid his cause.
On 43 minutes the pace and intensity of Arsenal’s pressing and offensive play on a cold, wet night was too much for Flamini as he appeared to pull a hamstring and was substituted for Francis Cocquelin.
The young Frenchman – in part determined to atone for his White Hart Lane misdemeanour in being sent off - was to add to the visitors surprisingly determined rearguard action.
As Messi, who sometimes had up to three men ‘tripled-up’ on him, still continued to work the ball to teammates - and just as impressively find space in a crowded final third – Wenger’s men could never afford to settle.
But as Karasev blew for half time with the Londoners 1-0 down, the fans were appreciative of the courage their players had shown in attacking the Catalan giants.
The second half started with the question of whether Arsenal could add goals to their promising first half performance – or whether Barca would truly impose their will more and open the floodgates.
Iwobi nearly proved the former as he shot wide moments into the restart. It was a warning the home team failed to heed as Elneny lifted the ball past ter Stegen and into the net after a Sanchez assist – to send the travelling supporters into raptures as the scores were levelled at 1-1 on 51 minutes.
Ten minutes into the second half the tempo was raised again as Messi, stung by the leveller shot low to Ospina’s left. The Medellin-born shot-stopper was equal to the task as he parried wide and away.
Two minutes later Welbeck found himself with the ball in space heading towards the Barca goal. As he prepared to move inside what appeared to be an empty box – bar ter Stegen – Mascherano came flying across to block and the ball ballooned away. Again, it was a vivid indication his team was not here just to make up the numbers.
But with 25 minutes remaining Suarez showed Arsenal what they missed in failing to sign him as he volleyed a looping Alaves ball into the box past a stunned Ospina to make it 2-1 to Barca. Whisper it to a Koppite but the spectacular strike was reminiscent of Mark Hughes strike for Wales against Spain at Wrexham in 1985 such was the power – and élan – in the execution.
A flurry of substitutions saw the veteran Iniesta replaced by Sergi Roberto with 19 minutes left. Although, given the legendary status the metronomic stalwart has achieved for his club it is debatable whether anyone will be able to replace him once he is no longer at the Nou Camp.
Wenger responded with two changes of his own as Walcott and Giroud came on for Welbeck and a lively Iwobi.
It nearly paid off as a long range Walcott free kick was somehow stopped by the keeper who then showed great reactions – and strong hands – in keeping out Giroud’s powerful follow-up.
You sensed it was Arsenal’s last chance to change the course of the game. And as the stunning Messi lifted the ball over Ospina with three minutes left to make it 3-1 it proved to be the correct assumption.
Yet in 2006 Arsenal were 17 minutes from eternal glory in the Champions League final against Frank Rijkaard after a Sol Campbell goal put the ten man Gunners 1-0 up before two late substitutions changed the game. With Henrik Larsson coming off the bench to prompt Samuel Eto’o to net an equaliser before another sub Juliano Belletti coming on strike the winner past Manuel Almunia and break Arsenal hearts.
Never again would Wenger’s men be as close again to eclipsing Barcelona – with the North Londoners regressing in the decade since – as Barcelona, under Pep Guardiola, the late Tito Villanova and current boss Enrique have taken their football to another level.
Yet the gulf in class tonight was not as apparent as it has been at many times since that Paris night as Wenger’s men performed more than creditably here in the Nou Camp – fed as they were by the constant support from the 4,600 travelling fans high up in the not-so-cheap seats.
And at £64 a pop for those loyal supporters from London who says it’s just Premiership football that is expensive? Indeed with some ticket agencies on La Ramblas unashamedly offering tickets at more than 400 Euros – perhaps new UEFA supremo Gianni Infantino should make high ticket prices and the unauthorised agencies that sell them one of his first targets.
He could also look into unconfirmed reports of a crush outside the Arsenal turnstiles before kick-off as it was claimed only one turnstile was open. Thankfully there were no reports of injuries.
But an investigation into both events would be of no consolation to the fans tonight. Even if their heroes performance against one of the best football teams in the world showed courage and character.
Unfortunately this evening for Wenger and his men those welcome characteristics were not enough against Enrique’s men.
The question is can they replicate their showing in a must-win game against Everton at Goodison Park in Saturday’s early kick-off? For if they can’t, their league title aspirations will be ended for good.
As will their season – which again promised so much – end in the space of seven days.
Barca: Ter Stegen, Dani Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Jordi Alba, Rakitic (Turan 76), Busquets, Iniesta (Roberto 71), Messi, Neymar, Suarez.
Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Gabriel, Monreal, Elneny, Flamini (Coquelin 42), Iwobi (Giroud), Ozil, Sanchez, Welbeck (Walcott 71).
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