How, then, do Arsenal solve a problem like Lionel Messi? If he isn’t unquestionably the best player in the world at the moment then he is in the top two or three, and if this evening’s Champions League quarter-final proves anything, it proves that one player, in irresistable form, can win a match. Lionel Messi has been in sensational form all season but this evening, with an individual performance so sublime that it feels at times as if he is the only player on the pitch, there is simply no stopping him. Arsenal supporters may wonder aloud what difference the injured Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas and Robin Van Persie might have made to their team, but it is difficult to imagine that anything barring a full, career-threatening assort upon Messi would have made any difference to what happens this evening.
Arsenal’s comeback from two goals down against Barcelona last week was treated in some parts of the British press as being something akin to the rebirth of Lazarus. This, however, rather seemed to overlook the extent to thich they were utterly, hopelessly outplayed for much of the first leg. Barcelona were so far ahead of Arsenal in the first half of the first leg that watching it felt akin to watching a full first team playing a good, well organised youth team. Still, find their way back into the match they did, and they travel to Catalunya this evening on level terms. The Champions League remains Arsenal’s achilles heel. In 2006, they led in the Stade de France against Barcelona before losing it as the cost of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann’s first half sending off wore their defence out. They’ve not come as close again since.
We may find out something valuable about Barcelona this evening, too. In recent years they have given off something approaching a perpetually arrogant swagger, but have occasionally been found wanting when they have to get down to business. They soared during the first hour of last week’s match, but failed to kill the game off. It’s not the first time that they have done this in recent years – could Arsenal pick a way through a legend that gives every indication of becoming self-perpetuating? Perhaps the biggest stumbling block that Barcelona have had in recent years is that their finest players – the likes of Deco, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry – have all given the impression of being a little flaky. Last week’s first leg saw hints – just hints – of that flakiness returning. What if Arsenal make them sweat?
There is no footballing masterclass in the first fifteen minutes from Barcelona tonight, though, and it is starting to feel as if this second leg could be a good deal scrappier than the first when Arsenal suddenly, and from quite out of the blue, snatch the lead. It looks as though Diaby fouls in centre circle, but the referees arms stay by his sides and the ball is pushed wide to Theo Walcott. There is no suspicion of offside as the ball breaks on the right-hand side, but Walcott’s ball across is a weak one, and Nicolas Bendtner seems to react slowly to it. It looks as though he hasn’t quite done enough to beat the goalkeeper, but the ball spins momentarily loose and Bendtner beats him to the follow up to give Arsenal the lead. They have come from two goals behind and they lead in the Camp Nou. Is one of the most remarkable European comebacks of recent years now on?
No, appears to be the crushingly straightforward answer to that question. The lead lasts for barely two minutes before Barcelona are level. A ball in to the edge of the penalty area finds Messi, who spins around the ball, picks it out from underneath his feet and curls the ball into the top corner to bring Barcelona almost instantaneously level. It is a goal so effortless that one could be minded to think that Messi can simply conjure this sort of thing up upon demand. Maybe he can. It certainly feels that way at times. He remains a constant menace and, ten minutes later, squirms his way into one half of a good position before shooting high into the side-netting. Then, nine minutes from the break he does it again. The Arsenal defence only half clears a low cross and Messi controls perfectly, pushes the ball into a yard of space and lifts the ball over Manuel Almunia to give Barcelona the lead.
Five minutes after this, the game is up for Arsenal. Their defence is caught flat far too far up the pitch, releasing Messi again, and he lifts the ball calmly to extend Barcelona’s lead to 3-1 and effectively put the match out of Arsenal’s reach. It feels a little as if Messi is punishing Arsenal for their impudence in taking the lead in the Nou Camp and, whilst it is true to say that their defending for the second and third goals was somewhat lackadaisical, the feeling that Messi can do this sort of thing on cue remains. Every step of the way, Arsenal have been frustrated. Having taken the lead, they needed to sit upon it for ten minutes and consolidate it – Messi levelled within two minutes. Back on level terms, Arsene Wenger might have hoped that they could see it through to half-time on level terms – Messi gave Barcelona the lead. Shell-shocked by two rapid-fire goals, the Arsenal manager may have hoped that his team could at least see things out to half-time and reorganise tactically – Messi bagged his hat-trick. All three goals scored within twenty-one minutes.
The first twenty minutes of the second half see Barcelona slow the pace considerably. They have a league match against Real Madrid and can’t afford any unnecessary injuries if they are to be at full strength for a game that could yet be critical in deciding which way the Spanish championship goes this season. Arsenal, to their credit, continue to work very hard, but the size of the task at their disposal is demonstrated on several occasions by the ease with which the quarter-chances created by their midfield endeavour are snuffed out. With a shade under twenty minutes left to play, Nicolas Bendnter finds himself unmarked and eight yards out, but his header hits the post and the flag is already raised for offside. It has been that sort of night for Arsenal. Barcelona are running down the clock but, as the clock ticks over eighty-nine minutes, Messi (who, it has to be said, it is a little surprising to still see on the pitch – that he wasn’t substituted says quite a lot about their Champions League priorities this season) skips and dances through the Arsenal defence, has one shot, from an angle, blocked by the legs Almunia. The ball, however, falls back to him and he makes no mistake the second time around, drilling the ball underneath the goalkeeper and in.
Arsenal, then, had no answer to a problem like Messi and, in all honesty, there is no shame in losing to a team as powerful as Barcelona or to a player who may just have played one of the, if not the, greatest games of his career. Quite where he goes from here is an open book of a question, but Barcelona now face Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic Inter side in the semi-finals after they eased past CSKA Moscow earlier this season with their third 1-0 Champions League win in a row. The footballing realpolitik of Internazionale against the occasionally over-romanticised style and substance of Barcelona should make, at the very least, for an intriguing semi-final. For Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, it is back to the drawing board. If he is to manage what we must assume he would believe to be the crowning glory of his career to North London, he will have to scale greater heights than he was able to manage to scale tonight.