Champions League: Messi breaks Cech hoodoo as his brace gives Barcelona a vital away win over Arsenal
Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona to a 2-0 win over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night. The Catalans now carry a two-goal cushion going into the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 encounter.
A goalless first half was followed by an action-packed second, as both teams went in search of the opening goal. Arsenal threw too many men forward at one point, allowing Barcelona to break at pace, and the move ended with Messi scoring. He then completed the scoring with a penalty late on, after he was fouled by Mathieu Flamini while attempting a shot.
Arsenal XI: Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Sanchez; Giroud
Barcelona XI: Ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Neymar, Suarez
As the teams walked out to the UEFA Champions League anthem, the electricity in the air was palpable. Arsenal kicked off to a huge roar from the Emirates faithful, who had turned up in numbers. The Gunners got off to a fairly decent start, as they made most of the running in the opening ten minutes, with Aaron Ramsey taking a scuffed shot inside the box in the 8th minute.
Barcelona reversed their circumspect start slowly and as the half wore on, the Catalans started asserting themselves and began to dictate play. Neymar, Messi and Suarez began to work their pretty patterns at the top end of the pitch, but Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny stood firm in the Arsenal defence, making a couple of vital tackles.
Arsenal had a wonderful chance to take the lead in the 22nd minute, as Giroud and Sanchez countered well. The ball was worked to Oxlade-Chamberlain in the box, and when it seemed like the Gunners were about to take the lead, the Englishman slipped as he took the shot, allowing Ter Stegen to comfortably save the effort which lacked power.
As the half wore on, Barcelona had yet to create a clear chance, the closest they came was Messi's headed effort on the 30 minutes. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mascherano clashed in the 37th minute, as the Argentine international made a crucial intervention to stop the former.
The Catalans were unperturbed by the interruption in play, and nearly took the lead as the first half ended. Ramsey gave the ball away in midfield, following which Neymar sent Messi through. With Koscielny in close attention, the Argentine opted to play in Suarez in space on the left side of the box. With the goal gaping, the Uruguayan chose to pass back to Messi instead of taking a shot himself, allowing Arsenal to clear their lines.
Moments later, Barcelona nearly scored with the final touch of the first half, as Dani Alves’ overlapping run allowed him to cross to Suarez, whose flicked-on header beat Cech, but the effort narrowly whistled past the post.
The second half resumed with the same pattern of play, as Barcelona asserted themselves right from the off. Neymar had a great chance to give the visitors the lead in the 49th minute, as he was sent clear for a one-on-one with Petr Cech, but the Arsenal keeper saved with his legs.
The referee began to earn the ire of the Emirates crowd, as a couple of decisions infuriated the Gunners, most notably when Jordi Alba aimed a harmless headbutt in Giroud’s direction, with the Spaniard reacting badly to a legitimate shoulder barge by the Frenchman. The referee however, sensibly chose to calm things down.
Arsenal had a great chance to take the lead on the hour mark, as Monreal’s tempting cross from the left found Giroud, and the Frenchman did well to climb up and aim a header downward, but Barcelona’s German keeper, Ter Stegen did brilliantly to get down and save the shot. Arsenal were beginning to push up the pitch as the half progressed, leaving gaps behind them.
That is precisely what Barcelona capitalized on in the 71st minute as Lionel Messi gave the visitors the lead. As Arsenal committed too many men forward, Suarez countered for Barcelona, as he set Neymar free with a nutmeg on Koscielny.
The Brazilian charged up the pitch, with only Monreal in a position to defend, which meant that Neymar could square for an unmarked Messi in the box as Monreal came towards him. The Argentine took a touch and with Cech committed, placed the ball into the goal giving Barcelona the lead, while also breaking his dismal record against Petr Cech.
Suarez nearly doubled Barcelona’s lead in the 78th minute as he hit the post when free in the box, but Barcelona need not have worried. Arsenal were the creators of their own downfall in the 83rd minute as Per Mertesacker’s attempt to control the ball in box wasn't good enough. Messi was quickest to the loose ball, and was fouled by Mathieu Flamini, who was going for the ball as well, conceding a penalty with his first touch of the game.
Lionel Messi stepped up to deepen Arsenal’s woes, and the Argentine did not hesitate, sending Petr Cech the wrong way, as he calmly slotted the ball to the goalkeeper’s right. Barcelona now had a two-goal lead going into the second leg, and it could have been more, as Cech saved well from a Neymar header.
As the referee blew the final whistle, Barcelona celebrated with joy, as they took an important two-goal lead into the second leg at the Nou Camp. While Arsenal are not out of the tie yet, the chances that they will make the quarterfinal of the Champions League for the first time in 5 years seem slim.