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Lionel Messi centre stage as Arsenal blow a golden opportunity

Arsenal 0-2 Barcelona

By Mark Ogden

It really is the hope that kills you and nobody knows how to snatch it away quite like Lionel Messi and Barcelona.

For 70 minutes of this Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie, Arsenal held their own and traded punches with the best team on the planet. They overcame their early apprehension and developed the belief that they could even claim a crucial and unexpected advantage ahead of the return game.

But despite Messi having one of his quieter nights, the magical Argentinian walked off the pitch with two goals and Barcelona's passport to the quarter-finals in his hands following a typically beautiful, and brutal, display of his killer instinct.

You have to feel for Arsenal, but when you are up against the very best, there are no answers to brief flashes of genius and they must now brace themselves for yet another exit from the Champions League before the real business kicks in.

For Arsenal to have any hope of staying alive in this tie ahead of the second leg in the Nou Camp next month, Arsene Wenger's players simply had to display the tactical discipline which was crucial to their 2-0 group stage victory against Bayern Munich at the Emirates last October.

As the clock ticked past 15 minutes, statistics showing that Arsenal had enjoyed just 30 per cent of possession emphasised the unique challenge they faced against Luis Enrique's team, but the numbers also highlighted the Wenger game plan.

Whenever Barca had the ball nine red shirts dropped back, with only Olivier Giroud remaining free to occupy centre-halves Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.

As Wenger had insisted prior to the game, Arsenal had to find the "right balance between being audacious and defensively strong", but that was easier said than done.

Barcelona may have lacked bite with the ball for much of the first-half, but they certainly knew how to keep hold of it. As a consequence, Arsenal were forced to make the most of their sporadic counter-attacks.

Arsenal initially snatched at their chances, perhaps not believing that had actually worked a sight of goal.

Aaron Ramsey saw a scuffed shot blocked by Mascherano, with Pique going on to snuff out a Mesut Ozil shot before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shinned a close-range effort into the arms of Marc-Andre Ter Stegen on 22 minutes.

But while Arsenal were struggling with their chances, Petr Cech was enjoying a relatively quiet first-half.

The former Chelsea goalkeeper went into this game defending the enviable distinction of having never conceded a goal against Messi in six encounters.

The closest Messi came to testing Cech in the first-half was after 35 minutes when, after earning a free-kick on the edge of the area, he aimed his shot low and into the wall.

It summed up Messi's early contribution, and Luis Suarez fared little better.

As the second-half began, Arsenal felt that this game could be there for the taking and Ozil and Alexis Sanchez upped the tempo.

The threat of Messi, Suarez and Neymar on the counter hung like a cloak, however.

Between them, the triumvirate had scored 91 goals in all competitions ahead of this first leg, but none of them had brought their A-game.

Neymar looked the sharpest and the Brazilian would have scored an opener on 49 minutes but for Cech.

Barcelona were guilty of attempting to walk the ball into the net and Arsenal were able to ride the storm and test the European champions.

Giroud's shot from Ozil's cross was blocked by Mascherano before the French striker forced a stunning save from Ter Stegen.

Arsenal began to creak and the opening goal came on 71 minutes following a breathtaking counter by Suarez, Neymar and Messi.

Messi's finish, having taken a touch before beating Cech for the first time, was neat and tidy, but Neymar's pass was exquisite.

Arsenal were unable to see the game out with a 1-0 deficit that would have given them hope in the Nou Camp.

A rash challenge by substitute Mathieu Flamini on Messi left referee Cuneyt Cakir with no option but to point the spot. Messi stepped up and scored to send hope heading for the exits with every other heartbroken Arsenal supporter.

ARSENAL: Cech, Bellerín, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Ramsey, Coquelin (Flamini 82), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott 50), Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud (Welbeck 72).

Subs not used: Gibbs, Ospina, Chambers, Campbell.

BARCELONA: Ter Stegen, Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez, Neymar.

Goals: Messi 71, 83 (pen)

Subs not used: Bravo, El Haddadi, Sergi, Adriano, Vidal, Vermaelen, Mathieu.

Man of the match: Messi (pictured) Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Cüneyt Çakir (Turkey)

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