LONDON — Barcelona‘s strike force proved too hot for Arsenal to handle as Lionel Messi scored both goals for the titleholders in a convincing 2-0 victory in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.
Messi provided a clinical finish to a breakaway move that featured strike partners Luis Suarez and Neymar in the 71st minute, and then scored an 83rd minute penalty to seal a tense first-leg match at Emirates Stadium.
The five-time world player of the year decided a game that Barcelona had dominated, even without taking all the chances that came the way of its prolific forward line.
Arsenal created opportunities in both halves, but was mainly engaged in a damage limitation exercise against a side that the club’s own manager Arsene Wenger described before the game as "super favourites."
It’s a tag that Barcelona certainly has now.
With two away goals and home advantage to come, Barcelona will be confident of reaching the quarterfinals for the ninth consecutive season after the second leg on March 16 at the Nou Camp.
"I liked everything about Barcelona today, everything from the very beginning," the Catalan club’s coach Luis Enrique said.
"My players individually performed perfectly and I think we are deserved winners of this game. The score is very good, but nothing is decided yet. We will have to play really well in front of our crowd in order to be in the next round."
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Barcelona had beaten Arsenal in both their previous meetings in the knockout stages, in 2010 and 2011, along with the 2006 final in Paris. Its second-half performance on Tuesday, which combined possession with dangerous counterattacks, was a potent reminder of that track record – and another source of frustration for Wenger.
"They are better than us, and I believe everybody knows that. But I think we could have won the game tonight if we had kept the discipline until the end," said the Frenchman. "Barcelona masters all aspects of the game, and as soon as you’re in a bad position with one or two players you can get punished."
Wenger accepted that his side’s chance of advancing hung by a thread, but he said he does not plan to field a weakened side in Spain.
"Barcelona is through at 95 per cent certainly, but we want to go there and play," he said. "We are Arsenal football club."
Despite the disappointing ending, his side made a bright enough start and carved out a half-chance after only eight minutes. A clever backheel by Aron Ramsey found Mesut Ozil, but the return pass wasn’t good enough for the Wales midfielder to get a clean shot away.
Arsenal was clearly looking to move the ball forward quickly on the break, as Barcelona gradually took control of the play – though the visitors were initially showing a lot more patience than real attacking threat.
Instead, the hosts came close to breaking the deadlock when Hector Bellerin’s blocked shot ran free in the area for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose low shot from close range drew a smart save by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Despite all its share of the ball, Barcelona’s first real chance came midway through the half with a free kick on the edge of the area that Messi ploughed into the Arsenal wall.
The holders were gradually ratcheting up the pressure, though, and should have opened the scoring on the stroke of halftime. Dani Alves lofted in a clever ball from the right side of the area but Suarez could only flash a glancing header across the face of the goal.
It was a scoreline that seemed to satisfy Wenger, who kept his team on the defensive for the second half.
Yet Barcelona ripped through Arsenal’s defence barely three minutes after the re-start with a superb pass for Neymar, whose shot was blocked in a one-on-one with Petr Cech.
Arsenal replied with a header from Olivier Giroud from a Nacho Monreal cross that Ter Stegen did well to block as the pace and tempo of the game ticked up.
Messi had a shot in the area charged down, Suarez sent an inviting low pass across the face of the goal and it seemed to be only a matter of time before Barcelona scored.
The goal duly came when Suarez released Neymar down the left and Messi had time and space to beat Cech.
"We are extremely guilty, we have no excuse for that goal." Wenger said.
Suarez then somehow managed to hit the post from point blank range after a pass from Messi from another breakaway.
However, Messi made such no mistake from the spot after being tripped by Mathieu Flamini, sending Cech the wrong way with the spot kick. And only a fine save at the end by the Arsenal goalkeeper prevented Neymar from adding a third with a header as Barcelona staked its claim to a place in the quarterfinals.