This game turned out to be an interesting clash between two football institutions who are famed for their possession based football and attacking prowess but only served to showcase the difference between the upper echelons of European heavyweights and those in the tier just below.
The first half was an entertaining affair which showed the Gunners tactical flexibility when switching between a high press and a medium block to frustrate a star studded Barca. They switched from the high press and clever setting of traps for the ball to be played from Mascherano to Pique for Sanchez to press and cause the latter to rush possession, preventing the rhythmic build up Barca love. To dropping off and allowing Busquets to receive the ball between the Barcelona centre backs, keeping the gunners compact and maintaining their overload in central areas with Giroud and Ozil acting as front screens for passes into the mercurial Iniesta and Xavi replacing Ivan Rakitic.
The only thing holding Arsenal from taking the lead apart from some excellent saves from the 10-point a season man, Petr Cech was their lack of quality on the counter attack and in the final third. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spurned the first real chance when he failed to make a strong contact after the ball had fallen to him near the 6 yard box from some neat Arsenal play. His resulting shot ended up in the arms of a sprawled Marc Andre ter Stergen on 22 minutes.
Barcelona came alive when the ball was with any of the most enthralling attacking trio of recent years Messi, Suarez and Neymar. The latter recently described recently as a ‘show pony’ by the ever opinionated Joey Barton, showing why Barcelona continue to look outside their famed La Masia for their 1v1 expertise and match winning moments. Neymar caused Bellerin issues with his quick feet and combination play and should’ve opened the scoring when his Henryesque finish was saved by Cech after a typical Barcelona move.
The MSN triumvirate opened the scoring on 71 minutes after Pique had cleared a poor cross from the Arsenal into the path of Neymar and within 15 seconds of Arsenal losing possession and a 3 pass move from Messrs Neymar and Suarez and clinically to Messi who showed the calmness and intelligence lacking earlier from Oxlade-Chamberlain to move the ball away from Cech with one deft touch and ability to lift the ball pass the covering Monreal to open the scoring. This goal epitomised the transformation that Barcelona have been through under Luis Enrique from the ‘pass you to death and sometimes boredom’ of the Pep Guardiola era to becoming the best counter attacking team in Europe who can still put teams on the Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed ‘passing carousel’ whenever they feel like. Enrique touched upon the importance of his teams counter attacking ability post match “We tried to take full advantage of our resources and when they put you in a tight spot, you have to know how to hit back on the counter-attack.”
The first goal changed the course of the game and as the 2nd half progressed so did Arsenal lack of shape without the ball, something that was very pleasing for Wenger’s side in the first half. Spaces began to appear within the Arsenal midfield and the non-existent Sanchez continued to be bypassed by Dani Alves who had more touches than any other player (112) showing the ineffectiveness of Sanchez when asked to play as a disciplined winger. Wenger described his team as ‘extremely guilty’ in reference to their lack of shape and naivety as the game progressed and they searched for a goal. This was epitomised when Luis Suarez who once topped Arsene’s wish list in 2013 hit the post in the 78th minute after the Blaugrana found space in between the Arsenal lines with ease The result and effectively Arsenals Champions League hopes were compounded in the 83rd minute after Mathieu Flamini, despite his energy saving crusade off the pitch, could not save the crusading Messi from reacting first to a loose ball in the box and brought the Argentinian down for a penalty which he coolly converted for Barcelona’s second of the night and his eighth against Arsenal.
Despite Arsenals discipline in the first 55 minutes the result and performance again highlights the difficulty that English teams (and most of Europe to be fair) have when reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, that the very few true match winners are reserved for Europe’s elite top table. Which at this moment in time Arsenal and the other English clubs are feasting on the scraps from the top table, taking the unwanted and deemed surplus to requirements to become their main men (Ozil, Sanchez to name a few). Regardless of the money swirling around in the Premier League, not being able to attract and most importantly hold on to the to the truly world class players or implement a clinically and tactically ruthless game plan for 90 minutes will see Arsenal dine out at the last 16 for many more years to come.
This will be the first of hopefully many blogs/articles that I will be attempting to write, which will also hopefully increase in quality.
Any comments or feedback is welcome.