Outgunned: Lionel Messi proves gulf in class as Barcelona beat Arsenal 2-0
The task facing Arsene Wenger’s men was a daunting one, with current European champions Barcelona on a 32-match unbeaten run spanning back to October.
However, the home faithful would have been encouraged by Arsenal’s application in the early exchanges, with Wenger’s tactics clearly designed to stifle Barcelona’s possession high up the pitch.
Mesut Ozil played in an advanced role alongside Olivier Giroud and the pair worked tirelessly, along with the rest of their side, to limit the Catalans’ time on the ball.
Barca’s star attacking trident of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez took time to get into the game, while Luis Enrique’s side were forced to adapt to overcome Arsenal’s aggressive pressing style.
Had either Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain taken chances that fell their way in the first-half, the story could well have been different, and Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen also denied Giroud with a fantastic save in the second 45 minutes, athletically scooping away the Frenchman’s goal-bound header.
As it was, the constant threat of Barcelona’s attacking trio was perfectly illustrated when Messi opened the scoring on 71 minutes.
The visitors broke at pace, with all three of their attackers involved before Neymar squared the ball for Messi to break the deadlock.
Arsenal’s woes were compounded when substitute Mathieu Flamini fouled Messi soon after being introduced to concede a penalty on 83 minutes, with the Argentine subsequently converting the spot kick for Barcelona's second.
The tie looks all but over now, with Wenger’s men needing a minor miracle at Camp Nou to avoid their sixth straight elimination at the last 16 stage of the Champions League.
Things could have been worse in the dying moments as Suarez hit the post, while Neymar also summoned a smart save from Petr Cech to keep the game at 2-0.
Wenger: "Barcelona master all aspects of the game. As soon as you're in a bad position against them you can get punished." #AFCvFCB— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) February 23, 2016
Arsenal fans will applaud their side’s industry and effort, with the clash evenly balanced after 45 minutes. However, the ruthlessness of the game at the highest level and the difference star quality can make was showcased without mercy by Messi and the Barcelona forward line.
Arsenal look likely to have to focus on domestic challenges if their 2015-16 season is to be a success.
The Gunners are in the running to win the Premier League for the first time since 2004, while the FA Cup holders remain in the competition after a 0-0 draw against Hull at the weekend.
Barcelona have an eight-point advantage at the top of La Liga and based on their current form are on course to replicate last season’s momentous treble feat.