16th March 2016: Arsenal brave, but Barcelona were half-bothered

Welcome back. So in a huge shock this evening, Arsenal lost 3-1 at Barcelona to exit the Champions League at the last 16 stage.

In seriousness though, despite Arsene Wenger deciding to pull an actual surprise and play Alex Iwobi and Mathieu Flamini from the start at Camp Nou, his side produced a commendable performance in defeat, creating a number of goal-scoring opportunities against the best club side in football.

But whilst we had near-misses and were ruing what ifs at half-time, the hosts had extended the lead they brought into the game from the first leg three weeks ago, with Neymar calmly stroking the ball past David Ospina after 18 minutes. The goal came about when Laurent Koscielny tried to carry the ball out from defence but was crowded out of possession and Luis Suarez sent Neymar through one-on-one with Ospina.

Just before half-time, Flamini pulled up seemingly clutching his hamstring and the rested Francis Coquelin came on his place for the last minute or two of the first-half, before spending the interval warming up properly. That was a relief because when he came on, such is our luck with injuries, my first thought wasn’t ‘how will he play?’, but ‘has he warmed up well enough and what if he gets injured and misses Everton?’.

Anyway, Coquelin fears allayed, we began the second well, with Barcelona playing like they could barely be bothered and knew they were all but through. Yet we gave them a genuine cause to reassess their creeping complacency just six minutes into the second period. Alexis Sanchez cut the ball back to the edge of the box from the right and Mohamed Elneny was there to strike it first-time using his right in-step, bending the ball around a Barcelona defender and into the top of the net at the near post giving their keeper no chance.

And it might have got better for us just moments later when Danny Welbeck nicked the ball high up the pack, cut inside Javier Mascherano onto his left foot and got a shot away, only to see it deflected wide by a a recovery challenge from the Argentine. In hindsight, Welbeck should have taken another touch as Mascherano had committed early to the slide and would have been helpless if Welbeck had decided to dummy his shot, but it wasn’t to be.

Unsurprisingly, with us back in the tie as well as the game at this point, Barcelona upped their game and found the goal that put them back in front on the night, 4-1 up on aggregate, and effectively killed the tie. Dani Alves crossed from the right and Suarez shinned a volley into the far top corner. It was fortuitous to say the least and not Barcelona’s only piece of luck on the night.

Iwobi was tripped, probably inadvertently, by Mascherano in the Barca box in the first half but despite seeing the incident described as ‘the worst dive of all time’ by some, it was a penalty as far as I’m concerned. There were numerous other decisions that were very harsh on Arsenal and generous to the hosts but then that’s always the case for any side playing Barcelona – home or away.

Our only complaints with the final meaningful action of the game however, were directed at our own defending as we failed to clear the ball in the 88th minute and Lionel Messi decided to get in on the goal-scoring act and scoop the ball past Ospina to make it 3-1.

Overall then, despite another defeat, I thought it was a good performance by us under the circumstances but we should factor in that Barcelona played well within themselves. Yet given our recent form, I’ll take that performance and hopefully the confidence some of the players, like Elneny, will have gained, as we now prepare to play in the only competition we can still win this season.

Given how few Premier League games remain and the fact leaders Leicester lie 11 points ahead of us at the moment, only a win at Everton on Saturday will suffice. Our preparation should already have started.

See you tomorrow.

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