Another year, another glorious failure for Arsenal’s nearly men as they were all but dumped out of the Champions League by Barcelona on Tuesday night.
It is a mark of how far expectations have fallen here in north London that the Gunners will probably receive high praise for their performance. For 70 minutes, they went toe to toe with the best team on the planet and held firm against Barcelona’s fabled attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
It will be good enough for some supporters. There is no shame in a 2-0 loss at the hands of Barcelona, particularly when Messi has taken charge of the game in the way that he did here, scoring both goals in a ruthless second-half performance from the Catalans.
But the fact is that Arsenal are heading out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage. Again.
This will be the sixth year in a row that Arsene Wenger’s side have failed to progress beyond the first knockout round. On March 16 they travel to the Camp Nou needing to overturn a two-goal deficit against the current holders of the trophy with perhaps the best front three in history. Any Arsenal supporter who thinks that it is possible should see their nearest doctor immediately.
That this will be interpreted by many as a good or acceptable 2-0 defeat reflects the gulf between the two sides but, had Arsenal taken their chances, it might have been different.
With the score goalless, Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal denied Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first half and kept out an Olivier Giroud header after the restart when both players should have scored. Arsenal were not ruthless enough – and they were punished.
By full-time, the Catalans could have won by four or five. Suarez missed a free header from five yards and struck another chance against the post from close range, while Petr Cech brilliantly denied Neymar in the final minutes.
The moment that changed the tie came in the 71st with a wonderful counter-attack as Suarez and Neymar combined to set up Messi, whose first touch put Cech on his backside and second found the net for his first goal in seven matches against the former Chelsea goalkeeper.
As Arsenal looked for a way back into the game, Wenger played his game-changing substitution. Mathieu Flamini duly delivered, hacking down Messi in the box within a minute of his introduction before the Argentine stroked in the resulting penalty.
To build the atmosphere ahead of kick-off, Arsenal dimmed the lights as their supporters created a striking tifo around the stadium which included the depiction of the club’s famous cannon crest. They were fired up and they came flying out of the blocks as they looked to startle Barcelona by playing with the typical intensity of a Premier League match.
On the touchline, Wenger urged his players to press quickly and with intensity. They followed the instructions, reverting from a 4-3-3 with the ball to a 4-4-1-1 without it, denying Barcelona’s forwards any time and space on the ball.
His players could not keep it up for the full 90 minutes. As the game became stretched, the Catalans’ attacking brilliance came to the fore as they showed why Wenger had described them as “super favourites” on the eve of the game.
From the minute that the draw was made, this was the likely outcome. Wenger’s attention will now surely turn entirely to winning the title – and he will hope that he does not suffer more deja vu in the Premier League.