Neymar to Suarez to Neymar to Messi: Nothing for Arsenal to do against such Barca brilliance
Neymar to Suarez to Neymar to Messi.
After 70 minutes of discipline and diligence, Arsenal were undone in a matter of seconds.
Each pass was played at the optimum moment, every touch executed perfectly.
The combination of speed and technique, of balance and dexterity, of awareness and movement was exceptional.
From Neymar’s initial swivel to Luis Suarez’s return ball, from the Brazilian’s squared assist to Lionel Messi’s delayed finish, it was a goal that demonstrated exactly why Barcelona are many people’s favourites to win Europe’s primary continental club competition for a second year running this term.
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It also illustrated the main difference between the current team and the one that Pep Guardiola guided to three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues between 2008 and 2012.
Guardiola’s charges twice visited the Emirates Stadium during that period, drawing 2-2 with Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2010 and losing 2-1 in the round of 16 a year later.
Despite failing to win on either occasion – they did triumph in both second legs to advance to the next round, however – Barcelona were excellent for long periods.
They dominated possession from the first whistle and moved the ball around with the utmost precision, forcing an Arsenal side who were used to doing similar things domestically to chase shadows.
The same could not be said in the opening half on Tuesday evening. Luis Enrique’s men were sloppy at times, their passing not as crisp or cohesive as their more tiki-taka-focused predecessors.
In part, that was down to Arsenal’s own alterations in the interim.
Arsene Wenger has displayed a pragmatic edge in the last year or so, the Frenchman seemingly increasingly willing to compromise his principles in the pursuit of victory.
Manchester City, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have all been beaten this season with an approach based on ceding control of the ball, sitting deep and springing forward with pace on the counter-attack.
A similar game plan was implemented against Barcelona, but the more important difference between Tuesday and the encounters earlier in the decade was in Wenger’s players’ collective mindset. This time, Arsenal’s off-the-ball organisation made life difficult for their illustrious opponents, who were unable to record a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes.
Barcelona have also adapted in the last few years, though.
Luis Suarez, in particular, has given them another dimension, a dose of aggression and physicality at the top of the pitch.
The Uruguayan’s willingness to run in behind helps to create space for others in the final third, but it also encourages Barcelona to occasionally look longer and go from front to back with greater speed.
The counter-attack has been added to their armoury. Even more significantly, the focus has shifted: a side that was once defined by its all-Spanish midfield trio has come to be defined by its triumvirate of South American attackers.
“We are extremely guilty and have no excuse for that first goal,” a visibly frustrated Wenger said afterwards. “Once again, like against Monaco [at this stage of last year’s competition], exactly the same thing happened. We were caught in exactly the same way.”
His annoyance was understandable, but the Arsenal boss knew that anything less than perfection was always unlikely to be enough. “They are better than us,” he admitted. “I believe everybody knows that.”
There is no shame in that for Wenger. After all, there is not a single team in the world – perhaps even in the entire history of the game – superior to this wonderful Barcelona outfit, who demonstrated in one superb move why they are likely to become the first side to retain the Champions League in its current format this season.
Neymar to Suarez to Neymar to Messi: a moment of magic from Barcelona’s mesmeric front three that leaves Arsenal on the brink.
Published: February 24, 2016 04:00 AM