Lionel Messi scored a brace as Barcelona took control of their Champions League last-16 tie against Arsenal with a 2-0 win in Tuesday’s first leg.
Gerard Pique returned in central defence for Barca after he was rested at Las Palmas over the weekend, while Sergio Busquets was back following a one-match ban for five yellow cards. Elsewhere for the Catalans, cup custodian Marc-Andre ter Stegen replaced Claudio Bravo in goal and Arda Turan was sacrificed for Ivan Rakitic to complete a full-strength XI.
Arsenal, on the other hand, changed all but two of their players from the goalless FA Cup draw with Hull, including Alexis Sanchez, who faced Barca for the first time since his departure two years ago, and they were extremely drilled from the first kick, seamlessly interchanging between high pressing and containing tactics.
Barca would end the first half with 70 percent of the ball and over half the passes played by Arsenal, yet the Gunners should have opened the scoring when ex-Blaugrana man Hector Bellerin and then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to turn home Mesut Ozil’s cutback from inside the box.
Nonetheless, the competition holders responded with a glorious opportunity of their own, Sergio Busquets’ square ball towards Petr Cech’s far post being sent back into the goalmouth by Dani Alves, although Luis Suarez somehow failed to guide the ball home with his head.
The ante was upped significantly in the second half, with both teams aware that the first goal would decide where the momentum swung, and Neymar should’ve found it, but instead of teeing up Messi for a certain opener, he tried to beat Cech one-on-one and failed.
Arsenal then took confidence from Neymar’s miss as Mesut Ozil’s cross was met by Olivier Giroud, who outjumped his marker Javier Mascherano and powered a header on target, but Ter Stegen dived to his right to push the ball away.
The chances became closer and Suarez was again guilty of poor finishing, a trait which continued from the trip to Gran Canaria over the weekend, as he unnecessarily took an extra touch before dragging a shot wide of the far post and then hit the post from point-blank range after Messi had led a counterattack.
Nonetheless, Barca finally came up trumps with 20 minutes to spare, when a breakaway from their own box resulted in Suarez releasing Neymar in behind and the Brazilian timing his cutback for Messi superbly to leave the Argentine only needing to take a touch and curl the ball home.
Welbeck proceeded to enter the fray and cause all sorts of problems in the Barca box as he laid the ball off for a certain Ramsey goal, only for Ter Stegen to intercept in last-ditch fashion, but his fellow addition Flamini conceded a penalty seconds after he was introduced.
The midfielder failed to read Per Mertesacker's pass in the box and chopped down Messi, who was onto the loose ball in a flash, and the No 10 then sent Cech the wrong way, striking the penalty into the bottom-left corner, to score his first-ever goals against the custodian.
Arsenal 0-2 Barcelona
Messi 71, 83
Arsenal: Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Coquelin (Flamini 82); Chamberlain (Walcott 50), Ozil, Alexis; Giroud (Welbeck 72)
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Referee: Cakir [TUR]