Arsenal bowed out of the Champions League with a hard-fought but ultimately comprehensive 5-1 aggregate defeat against Barcelona. The Gunners had suffered a damaging 2-0 deficit going into the second leg at Camp Nou, and while they managed to redeem themselves partially against a resplendent Barcelona side, the star-studded MSN trio proved too much for them to handle.
Arsene Wenger made a few surprising changes to the starting lineup. Mathieu Flamini was handed a start in the centre of midfield over Francis Coqeulin, the decision perhaps stemming from Coquelin’s indiscipline against Tottenham. Walcott and Campbell were relegated to the bench, as Nigerian teenager Alex Iwobi made his Champions League debut. Danny Welbeck got a start ahead of Olivier Giroud, the Englishman’s quick runs off the shoulder of defence a more potent weapon than the Frenchman’s robust physicality.
The opening exchanges were evenly matched — Barcelona hypnotic in possession and Arsenal incisive in counter attack. Mesut Ozil robbed the ball off Rakitic and ran at the Barcelona backline before cutting inside and scything a shot just wide of the post. Then the Barcelona attack created a great chance out of nothing, Neymar playing a wonderful cross into Messi’s velcro feet. David Ospina made a fantastic point-blank save to deny the Argentine’s strong drive.
As encouraging as Arsenal’s display was, Barcelona pounced on their first mistake and capitalised on it. Koscielny misplaced a pass out of defence, the Catalan cogs whirred into motion, and Neymar was played in for a simple finish at the near post. Barcelona led 3-0 on aggregate, and an already tall task was made all the more daunting for the visitors.
To their credit, Arsenal came back harder and fashioned more good opportunities before half time. Welbeck played an excellent one-two with Iwobi before his shot was deflected wide by a Mascherano tackle. Bellerin floated in a dangerous cross that Alexis headed wide. Alexis played in Elneny inside the box, who took a heavy extra touch and had the shot blocked. Wenger’s biggest regret from the night will surely be not putting these gilded chances away. Arsenal have been profligate throughout their recent lean period, and a lack of attacking efficiency cost them again here.
After the break, Arsenal started where they left off, fashioning half-chances and giving Barcelona a good go. Their efforts finally paid dividends in the 53rd minute, when Alexis cut back a smart pass from the flanks for an onrushing Elneny to sweep smartly home. It was the Egyptian’s first goal for the Gunners, in a game where he gave a very good account of himself.
Parity in the score-line meant that the next goal would be critical. Arsenal had a big opportunity to silence the Camp Nou, as a wayward header from Mathieu left Welbeck free on goal. Just like in the first half, a perfectly timed Mascherano tackle rained on Danny’s parade. A further dampening of spirits was in store as Barcelona went up the field and scored themselves, putting the tie out of sight. A cross into the box found an unmarked Suarez, who volleyed beautifully into the far corner.
Still the away side tried to chip away, aware of the space Barcelona afforded them, and knowing that another goal would balance the tie on a knife-edge again. A rasping Welbeck shot hit the outside of the bar. An Alexis Sanchez free kick was wonderfully saved by Ter Stegen, who also saved Giroud’s follow up shot. When that melee in the box failed to yield a goal, one could see the Arsenal heads finally dropping in defeat.
As the game drew to a close, Messi still had the time and talent to mark it with his presence. Barcelona once again profited from Arsenal’s loose passing in their own half, Messi receiving the ball in the box and nonchalantly lobbing Ospina for his ninth goal against Arsenal in the Champions League. The whistle came soon after, ending a good but futile showing from Arsenal.
While the overall scenario looks bleak for Wenger’s men, who also exited the FA Cup against Watford last weekend, the manager will look to take some positives from this performance. Iwobi managed to impress on the biggest of stages, not daunted by the occasion or opposition. Ospina made some wonderful saves to keep Arsenal in the tie. Monreal was as solid as a defender can be against Barcelona. Elneny’s game was marked by tireless running – covering more distance than any other outfield player – and sensible passing, capped off with a finely taken goal. The past month has been a horror show for Arsenal, where they’ve lost against mid-table sides and underperforming rivals. This showing was not one of them. All said and done, there is no shame in losing to Barcelona.
Wenger will hope that his charges aren’t too tired or saddened by this experience. A tough match against Everton at Goodison Park awaits on Saturday, with Arsenal just about in the title race. A slip-up against the Toffees could see a once promising season creak to an abrupt halt.