Arsenal: Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis, Giroud
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Campbell, Walcott, Welbeck
Arsenal battled valiantly against a brilliant Barcelona this evening, but two goals from Lionel Messi gave them a 2-0 win to take back to Spain for the return leg in three weeks time.
After the 0-0 draw with Hull in the FA Cup, there were lots of changes with Arsene Wenger selecting the same XI that beat Leicester 2-1 just 9 days ago.
Arsenal began brightly trying to put some pressure on the visitors, but a 6th minute yellow card for Nacho Monreal was a worry early on – especially as it seemed harsh, the Spaniard slipping as he made the challenge.
Aaron Ramsey showed some attacking intent early on, feeding Ozil and seeing a left footed shot blocked. The game then settled down into a lot of Barcelona possession, with Arsenal maintaining a defensive shape to deny them space.
Despite the fact they had most of the ball, Arsenal had the best chance in the 22nd minute. Nice work down the left saw the ball spread wide to Ozil. He pulled it back to Bellerin whose left footed shot was saved. The rebound fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain but his effort was tame, shooting straight at the keeper, he really should have scored.
It took until the 31st minute for Barcelona to have their first effort on goal, Lionel Messi heading a Neymar cross well over the bar. The Argentine tried a cute free kick when Koscielny was penalised for taking him down on the top of the D, but it was easily blocked when he tried to kick it under the wall.
Oxlade-Chamberlain had a great chance to deliver a ball as he broke down the right, but overhit it and ended up being clobbered by Mascherano, a collision which left him limping afterwards. Ramsey blocked a Messi shot, and in the final two minutes there was real danger from Barcelona as they had two great chances to score.
When Oxlade-Chamberlain ran away from a Ramsey pass, they came forward and it took a clearance from Monreal to prevent the goal. And with the 1 minute of injury time almost up, Alves got away from Alexis down the right to deliver a cross which found Suarez unmarked in front of goal after Koscielny switched off, but his header drifted just wide.
It had been pretty solid from Arsenal until then, but they’ll have been thankful they went in at the break with the scores level.
There were no changes from either side as the game began again, but that was a problem for Arsenal as Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly couldn’t continue. It left us a bit exposed down the right, and Barcelona took advantage creating a great chance for Neymar who found himself one on one with Cech – but the keeper made a fantastic save with his legs to deny the Brazilian.
That saw Arsene Wenger make the necessary change with Theo Walcott coming on to replace the Ox. Great defending from Bellerin and Mertesacker helped prevent dangerous situations, and when Jordi Alba pretended Giroud had him, he got to his feet and put his head into the Frenchman’s face – without so much as a card from the referee. Had it been an Arsenal player, it would surely have been red.
The game was bubbling, with Alves next to feign injury, and when Arsenal came forward Giroud saw a header well saved by Ter Stegen in the 59th minute. Alexis had a shot blocked by Iniesta, then at the other end Mertesacker again made a huge block on Messi inside our box, before Suarez fizzed a shot just wide of the far post.
Giroud and Walcott found themselves on different wavelengths in their area, and as Arsenal prepared to make a change, they found themselves behind. Barcelona launched a seriously quick counter attack down their left, Neymar fed Messi, he cut inside then flashed the ball into the net to make it 0-1.
Arsene Wenger made his second change, bringing on Danny Welbeck for Olivier Giroud, but it was only the width of the post that kept the lead to just one when Suarez almost capped another scintillating break with a goal.
At the other end Welbeck’s nod down almost found Ramsey on the stretch but the tiniest touch from the defender put it too far ahead of him. Mathieu Flamini then replaced Francis Coquelin on 82 minutes, and within a minute he’d conceded a penalty with a foul on Messi. The Barcelona number 10 stepped up, sent Cech the wrong way, and made it 0-2.
It might have been worse only for Cech saving strongly from a Neymar header in injury time. Arsenal will have regrets, both in terms of the goals they conceded and the way they did that, and the chances that went begging – especially that Oxlade-Chamberlain one in the first half.
It’s an uphill task in the return leg in three weeks time, and Arsenal have to pick themselves up for a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday.