By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal face an uphill battle to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League after losing the first leg of their last-16 clash to Barcelona at Emirates Stadium.
Lionel Messi scored twice in the second half to put the Gunners in an unenviable position against the holders and the bookies’ favourites to retain their trophy.
Arsene Wenger’s side had performed admirably throughout an evenly-contested first half, hassling their vaunted opponents into mistakes and isolating their famed front three.
Both Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had early chances, while the defensive resolve of the midfield and backline kept Barca opportunities to a minimum.
The best of them came on the stroke of half time as Luis Suarez flashed a header across the face of goal, although Petr Cech was called into action after the restart to deny Neymar with a sprawling save.
But Arsenal refused to be cowed, and Giroud nearly lifted the roof off the Emirates when his towering header was clawed away by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
But finally the deadlock was broken as Luis Enrique’s side broke at speed through Suarez, who found Messi in the area and the Argentinean slotted home.
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner claimed his second as he converted from the penalty spot after being taken down in the area by Mathieu Flamini.
It was harsh on Arsenal, who now face an almighty task to progress when they visit the Nou Camp for the second leg next month.
SETTING THE SCENE
The challenge facing the Gunners prior to kick off was writ large: Barcelona were unbeaten in their previous 32 games, had scored 113 times, conceded just 37 and had not lost in the Champions League this season.
But, as underdogs, Wenger insisted his side would be liberated by the lack of pressure on their shoulders and also boosted by the knowledge that they beaten their illustrious opponents at Emirates Stadium five years earlier.
The Arsenal manager may not have been able to call on any of the team from that memorable night, but he selected the same side that had won in such dramatic circumstances against Leicester City two weeks earlier.
It meant that Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right in place of Theo Walcott, who had previously caused such problems for Barcelona in European ties of the past, while Mesut Ozil also returned to the starting line up.
The visitors, meanwhile, selected the attacking trident that many consider the best of all time, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar having already scored 91 goals between them this season, while former Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen was named on the bench.
With the north London air crackling in anticipation after the pre-match light show, the game got underway amid a frenzied atmosphere at Emirates Stadium.
The visitors may have been tipped by most to progress, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the Arsenal fans who were determined lift their team to new heights.
After serenading Ozil and Alexis during the opening exchanges, the home supporters were soon off their feet as the former found Ramsey in the box - but the Welshman’s scuffed shot was blocked.
It only served to fuel the already intense atmosphere inside the ground and, as we approached the midway point in the half, the roars grew even louder as Arsenal created their second chance of note.
It came as Ivan Rakitic was forced into an error, allowing the hosts to break quickly. Ozil delivered a good ball into the box from the right and, after a scramble, it fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain but his low shot was held by Ter Stegen.
It was certainly an encouraging start from the home side, who had also managed to isolate Barca’s famed front three and reduce their effectiveness - although their threat remained ever-present.
Wenger’s side were showing real discipline, getting men behind the ball and keeping their defensive shape in the face of the slowly building waves of pressure, while hustling and harrying their opponents constantly.
It was delicately poised, with neither side able to claim any real supremacy - although Suarez had arguably the best chance of the game so far right at the end of the half, but glanced a header wide from close range.
The visitors started the second period as the ended the first, and within minutes they had fashioned a great chance to open the scoring as Neymar was played through on goal.
The Brazilian collected Andres Iniesta’s disguised pass in the area, took a touch to set himself and let fly with a shot, but Cech made a fine save with his legs.
It was a portent of things to come as Enrique’s side continued to turn the screw, suddenly now in the groove and starting to look more like the free-scoring side that had beaten all before them.
If Arsenal were to survive, they would need to find some of the control they had shown in the first half - but suddenly it was their turn to threaten again as Giroud’s towering header forced Ter Stegen into a scrambling save.
The previous seven games between these sides had produced 27 goals, but this was a tighter, more evenly-contested affair than many of those and it did not seem likely to be a high-scoring contest this time around.
Per Mertesacker, so commanding at the back, was called into action to make a fine block to deny Messi in the area, before Suarez rolled the ball across the face of goal moments later.
Both sides were starting to work through the gears, creating opportunities but just lacking that final ball - and soon Giroud found himself in space in the box, only to try to find Walcott, who had run the other way.
But, as we entered the final quarter, Barca broke at speed through Suarez and the Uruguayan found Messi in the box, with the four-time Ballon d’Or winner making no mistake from eight yards out.
It was cruel on the Gunners, but it could have been far worse soon afterwards when the visitors countered again, only for Suarez to hit the post from close range when really he should have scored.
Still Arsenal came, with Danny Welbeck teeing up Ramsey in the area but Ter Stegen was able to make the block from close range.
But with eight minutes remaining, Flamini took down Messi in the area, and the Barca forward stepped up to convert the penalty.
It had in many ways been an admirable performance from the Gunners, but they find themselves with a huge battle on their hands to progress now.
Referee: Cüneyt Çakir
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