Lionel Messi left Arsenal spellbound as the Barcelona striker’s clinical double sealed a 2-0 last 16, first leg victory that put the Champions League holders firmly on course for the quarter-finals.
Barca coach Luis Enrique joked this week that all he needed to do was shout ‘Abracadabra’ for Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to deliver the kind of magic display that would bewilder the Gunners.
On this occasion, it was Messi who answered his coach’s call with a second-half brace as the Spanish champions survived a stern examination from Arsene Wenger’s side to escape the Emirates Stadium with a result likely to condemn the hosts to a sixth successive last-16 exit.
The leaders of La Liga, chasing a sixth European Cup triumph, are now unbeaten in 33 games in all competitions—a blistering streak that includes 14 wins from their last 15 games.
After being dazzled by Messi’s magic wand, it will take an act of astonishing escapology for Arsenal to go through in the return leg at the Camp Nou on March 16.
“I liked everything about us today from the very beginning,” Luis Enrique said.
“I liked the way we scored and we had plenty of possession.
“Our opponent defended with every player in their own half but we still managed to hamper them.”
Wenger added: “Barcelona is a great team. The regret I had was we looked like we could dominate the game, then we give the goal away.
“Realistically it is very, very difficult, if not impossible (to make the quarter-finals).”
Aware that Arsenal’s refusal to curb their attacking instincts had left them fatally vulnerable in the Champions League knockout stages, Wenger set out to stifle Barca with a cautious game-plan.
Nacho Monreal had clearly taken Wenger’s words to heart and he earned an early booking for chopping down Ivan Rakitic.
But there was more than just mindless muscle to Arsenal’s approach.