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Wednesday February 24 2016
Messi lifts below-par Barca

The smart money is on Barcelona progressing to the Champions League quarter-final but, Mike Barnes writes, the Catalans were made to fight by Arsenal until Lionel Messi’s late double.

When Barcelona defeated Arsenal 4-1 in the 2010 Champions League quarter-final second leg, Lionel Messi scored all his team’s goals, three of them in a devastating 20-minute first-half burst. Two were enough to sink the Gunners on Wednesday night and again it was Messi who made the difference.

Much of the pre-match talk ahead of Barcelona’s arrival at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night was of whether the North London side could contain the visitors’ explosive three-pronged strike-force of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

Luis Enrique’s men predictably dominated possession, registering their 500th pass of the night midway through the second half. The nature of most of the game, however, confounded those confidently predicting a comfortable Barca win.

Seasoned Barcelona-watchers will have been unsurprised at the Catalans’ failure to dominate their opponents from the outset. Messi, Suarez and Neymar are after all only human, despite frequent indications to the contrary.

Even with a full-strength line-up at Enrique’s disposal, a 90-minute football masterclass cannot always be guaranteed and it is to Arsenal’s credit that Barca were made to fight all the way for the win that gives them a valuable advantage going into the second leg in three weeks’ time.

Recent weeks have seen Enrique’s men struggle to win games that on paper they would have been expected to stroll through with some ease. An admittedly below-strength Barca laboured to overcome Malaga in January, with a second-half moment of Messi magic securing a 2-1 win against spirited opponents.

Last weekend, the Catalans stretched their unbeaten run to 32 games in all competitions and registered their seventh straight Primera Liga victory, this time winning 2-1 at Las Palmas. Again it was a battling rather than spectacular win, as if Barca were conserving their energy ahead of their trip to London. 

Barcelona were not exactly having an off-day at the Emirates, but Arsenal stuck to their task and stopped them from playing. The first half was dull and, in the second, Barca became tetchy and frustrated as Arsene Wenger’s men continued their dogged resistance.

Covering the least amount of ground among all the outfield players in the first-half, Messi was having a largely quiet and ineffective evening until he sprung into life on 71 minutes to finish off a beautiful counter-attacking Suarez-Neymar move.

It was all over when the same player buried a spot-kick penalty 12 minutes later after Mathieu Flamini had brought him down in the penalty area. Arsenal were left to rue their earlier missed chances - Olivier Giroud in particular could have given them the lead but found Marc Andre ter Stegen in fine form - as Messi made them pay for their wastefulness.

With a two-goal lead and two vital away goals to take back to Camp Nou, Barca’s passage to the last eight seems assured. The eventual ease of their victory in a professional rather than compelling performance should sound a clear warning to the other remaining Champions League contenders.

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