The European champions took the steam out of Arsenal in a performance more about efficiency than style, knocking out the Gunners late in the game thanks to their star strikeforce
Abracadabra: That is the word Luis Enrique used to describe how he motivates Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in the build-up to Barcelona’s Champions League last-16 tie against Arsenal. “That’s what I tell them and the magic sparks,” he said.
It took a moment of magic from Barca’s front three to break down Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, but this performance was about much more than wizardry.
Barca, playing their seventh game this month and their fourth in the past nine days, looked tired in the first half of this match. But they knew Arsenal would work extremely hard to press and contain, so they waited patiently and took the steam out of their opponents with two hammer blows late on.
There was a sense that Arsenal needed to take their chances in this one because Barca rarely fail to score. So when an early opportunity was cleared by some last-ditch defending and later, as Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved from Aaron Ramsey, Gunners fans surely feared the worst.
Right at the end of the first half, Luis Suarez (who hit a post later on) headed wide for Barca, while Neymar will feel he should have done better with only Petr Cech to beat in the second half. Luis Enrique’s men were creating chances, yet the pretty play from previous Barca visits here was conspicuous in its absence.
Not that it mattered. Barca were brilliant in the 2-2 draw at The Emirates under Pep Guardiola in 2010, somehow failing to win it despite a first-half masterclass overseen by the Catalan coach. They then lost 2-1 the following season in another game they should have won. They did, however, claim victory both times with resounding victories in the second legs at Camp Nou.
Pep’s Barca always sought perfection and often attained it. On occasions, though, Guardiola’s great team could have played percentages and ground out results instead. That is exactly what the current crop are doing under Luis Enrique.
“I liked everything I saw,” Luis Enrique said afterwards. “We are a team that play like nobody else against sides who leave no spaces at all. We dominate all facets of the play and that’s fantastic.”
And he added: “Everybody who understands football knows you need a first half like that to have a second half like the one we saw. If they get tired, you know there will be more space.”
That is exactly what happened and it was fitting that when the goal finally arrived, it was all about the MSN trio. Neymar picked up an Andres Iniesta clearance, played a one-two with Suarez and found Messi in the area. The Argentine attacker, who had never netted against Cech, paused for a second and then finished off the move like a true matador.
Arsenal could consider themselves a little unfortunate to be behind, but they must have known it was coming. They should have taken their chances and couldn’t – and the trident were waiting to produce their moment of magic.
It came after 71 minutes and with only seven remaining, Barca made it two. This time, Messi was brought down by subsitute Mathieu Flamini and coolly slotted home the spot-kick to make it 2-0. Game over.
When the Argentine attacker scored four against Arsenal at Camp Nou in 2010, Arsene Wenger famously described the forward as a “Playstation”. The fantasy from that display may have been missing on Tuesday, but Barca’s best player showed he can be efficient just like his team. And that’s what makes Barca, on course for a second straight treble, even better than they were back then.
In pure technical terms, the Blaugrana reached their zenith in the Guardiola era. Under Luis Enrique, however, they are ruthless and incredibly effective. And when all else fails, there is the game’s greatest forward line to win matches – just like the MSN did again on Tuesday.