By Richard Clarke at the Nou Camp
Arsenal are out of the Champions League.
The challenge came unstuck once again at Barcelona and once again at the feet of Lionel Messi.
The Argentinean maestro opened the scoring in first-half injury time and fired home the tie-clinching penalty in the 71st minute.
Inbetween those goals, Arsenal equalised when Sergio Busquets nodded into his own net and were then reduced to 10 men when Robin van Persie received a second yellow card for playing on after the referee has blown.
It was a highly controversial dismissal and it made the difference on the night. Xavi Hernandez levelled the tie soon afterwards and, a couple of minutes later, Messi’s penalty clinched qualification for the Spanish champions.
The statistics will support this result. Barcelona had two-thirds of the possession, far more shots, more corners, more everything. But that was always likely to happen.
Arsenal knew they had to perform wonderfully well to knockout the tournament favourites and have the key moments go their way.
Neither happened this evening but they pushed Barcelona harder than they had 12 months ago when Messi had scored all four goals in a tie that was dead at half-time.
This is disappointing but, yet again, Arsenal suggested they are stronger than last season.
And while this door has closed, their season is still alive.
The fitness of Van Persie had not even been mentioned by Wenger when he spoke to the media on Monday morning. It was ‘a given’ he was out with the knee injury sustained in the Carling Cup Final.
A few hours later he was on the plane to Spain.
On Tuesday evening he started up front.
Cesc Fabregas returned from the hamstring injury he collected against Stoke a fortnight ago to captain the side. Abou Diaby was chosen to fill the role left by the absence of Alex Song (knee).
Arsenal held that slender lead from the home game. But Barcelona had an away goal, an array of world-renowned talent and the backing of a noisy Nou Camp.
An injury-hit Arsenal had perished here last season after a Messi masterclass.
They were odds-on to go out again but this vintage seemed a little stronger than 09/10. However, this was the ultimate test.
The opening stages were cagey. Laurent Koscielny blocked Pedro as he prepared to shoot and held off Messi after he pounced on a misplaced pass from Johan Djourou.
The ball bounced out to David Villa but Jack Wilshere slid in to scoop away his low cross.
It was hardly pressure. But, as we approached the quarter-hour, Barcelona were taking control.
Arsenal had done little attacking while the home side were starting to chip away at the visiting defence.
In the 16th minute, Koscielny hauled down Pedro and was booked. Daniel Alves hammered the free-kick goalwards and Wojciech Szczesny gathered.
The Polish keeper immediately threw the ball out and called from treatment for what appeared to be a hand injury. He could not carry on and Manuel Almunia replaced him.
Now, the game was being played in the Arsenal half and that was no good at all for the long-term health of that one-goal lead.
It was no surprise that the chances started to flow.
Fabregas gave the ball away in midfield, Messi darted through but was dispossessed and Pedro curled an effort wide.
Just past the half-hour, Messi weaved beyond Djourou, Koscielny and Gael Clichy only for the Swiss defender to recover and hack the ball away as he looked set to score.
This was nothing more than we had expected. Barcelona were always going to have most of the ball and Arsenal were going to have to grab what they could on the break.
But it was still a strain.
Villa escaped from Djourou and slid a lame shot towards Almunia but, in the 35th minute, left back Adriano reached the byline and, from the tightest of angles, thumped a shot against the outside of the near post.
This had been billed as a battle between the best two footballing sides in the world but there was an edge to it too. Arsenal picked up all four bookings but there were guilty parties on both sides.
It had been a half of hard work for Wenger’s men. One in which the statistics showed they had enjoyed just 30 per cent of the possession.
However, it seemed that they had got through unscathed.
Then, three minutes into injury time, Messi struck.
Fabregas gave the ball away just outside the area. Andreas Iniesta collected and fed the Argentinean 12 yards out on the right of the area. He controlled it with one touch, flicked it up with another and managed to retain sufficient balance to hook it home with a third.
It was a wonderful finish but a body blow for Arsenal.
The visitors did not seem to have shaken the late goal from their system in the opening stages of the second half.
The game began, as it had ended, with Barcelona entrenched in the Arsenal half looking for openings.
However, Wenger had talked about the importance of belief pre-game. And it was that which grabbed a goal eight minutes in the second half.
Surrounded by three Barcelona players, Nasri won a corner on the left. Van Persie took it and, although Diaby went for it, the ball went into the net off the head of Busquets.
For perhaps the first time tonight, the Nou Camp was quiet. Except, of course, for a pocket of Arsenal fans right at the top of the stadium.
The tie was back in Arsenal’s hands.
But, after Villa’s stumbling shot was blocked, the pendulum swung back towards Barcelona.
Van Persie played on after the whistle had blown and took a shot on goal. Referee Massimo Busacca deemed it to be kicking the ball away and, effectively, time wasting.
He brandished a yellow card, the second of the night for the Dutchman, and he was off.
Villa went close again and Alves fired over. The red card had put the bit between Barcelona’s teeth. They had re-doubled their efforts and were asking serious questions of the Arsenal defence.
In the 66th minute, Messi sent Villa through but Almunia blocked well with his body.
But Barcelona had worked up a head of steam once more and that pressure would bring two goals in the three minutes. It was double damage from which Arsenal would not recover.
In the 69th minute, Iniesta sent Xavi through and he tucked away a shot past Almunia.
Shortly afterwards, Koscielny tripped Pedro and Messi scored from the spot.
Wenger brought on Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin in search of a goal. But Barcelona still looked the more likely to score.
Almunia blocked once from Messi and twice from Ibrahim Afellay. Then with five minutes left, Alves went clear but somehow stuck a shot past the far post.
There was a sniff of a chance for Arsenal late on when Wilshere, their stand-out player on the night, fed Bendtner in the area. But the stretching Dane could not quite convert and keeper Victor Valdes smothered the ball.
It was a half-chance, a stolen moment but typical of the ones Arsenal needed to convert in order to qualify.
The whistle blew shortly afterwards.
Arsenal were out but with more honour than last season.
- Szczesny 18
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C) 76
- Wilshere Yellow Card
- Rosicky 73
- van Persie Yellow Card Red Card
- Almunia 18
- Arshavin 73
- Bendtner 76
- Adriano 89
- Dani Alves
- Xavi Goal!
- Mascherano 88
- Messi Goal! Goal!
- Villa 81
- Keita 88
- Maxwell 89
- Afellay 81