Barcelona narrowly edged out Arsenal in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday night, as Lionel Messi once again proved the difference in a 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium.
The Argentinian captain slotted home in the 71st minute as Barca cut through the Gunners defence after a strong performance from the Premier League side, and he wrapped up the victory with a late penalty.
It was a hugely disappointing scoreline for the hosts, who deserved a result on the night.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recalled Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech after resting the trio in the FA Cup against Hull City.
Barca coach Luis Enrique brought Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets into the starting XI after both were absent against Las Palmas in La Liga.
The atmosphere was fully charged at kick-off, and Arsenal quickly caught Barca on the break as they pressed. The Gunners played a high line and were disciplined in their tactics, and they often stopped the supply line to Messi and Luis Suarez.
Arsenal had great chances to break the deadlock through Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but both attackers fluffed their lines.
Giroud collected a smart cutback from Ozil but couldn't make a true contact as he tried to shoot. Oxlade-Chamberlain was presented the ball just 10 yards from goal, but the England international lost his balance with just goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to beat at point-blank range.
The visitors settled into a rhythm as the half progressed, but struggled to create true goalscoring opportunities.
Suarez appeared Barca's most likely, but the Gunners defended in numbers as the Uruguayan battled his way into the box.
Arsenal began to tire in the final minutes of the first half, and it was clear their slowing movement was a plus for the Blaugrana as they passed with precision.
Bleacher Report's James McNicholas was impressed with the opening efforts of Wenger's men:
Strong half from Arsenal. Defensive concentration pretty good all over the pitch. Keeping it up for 90 mins will be the problem.— gunnerblog (@gunnerblog) February 23, 2016
Phil McNulty of BBC Sport also praised Arsenal but was wary of Barcelona's increasing threat:
Couple of ominous warning shots from Barca at the end of the half but Arsenal excellent. Determined and very disciplined.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) February 23, 2016
WhoScored.com provided the stats at half-time, showing Barcelona's superiority with the ball at feet and also displaying player ratings:
Barca nearly scored in the opening moments of the second half as Neymar got behind the Gunners defence. The Brazilian sprinted clear from an Andres Iniesta pass, but stopper Cech was equal to the task, blocking the forward's goal attempt.
However, the visitors struggled with their rhythm compared to their best football of recent months, and Arsenal took territorial advantage as they attacked.
Ozil once again carved a path through the Barca defence, but Giroud twice missed good chances from the German's assists.
Messi was strangely subdued as the treble winners looked uncomfortable against the waves of Arsenal pressure, and the Gunners midfield was on top on the hour mark.
Barca almost broke the deadlock with 25 minutes remaining; Suarez delicately made his way into the box and flashed a shot across Cech, as Neymar arrived a moment too late for the tap-in.
Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck were both introduced with Arsenal in the ascendancy, as the hosts looked more likely to score, but a devastating counter-attack in the 71st minute by Neymar set Messi up for a simple finish, as the icon grabbed the lead with a sucker punch.
Football pundit David May called the action:
Just when Arsenal thought they had a chance ... Bang messi goal class 👍👍👍— David May (@DavidMay04) February 23, 2016
Suarez once again almost scored as Barca played with more freedom, but the former Liverpool hitman struck the post with just Cech to beat.
Disaster struck for Arsenal with eight minutes remaining as Mathieu Flamini blatantly fouled Messi in the box, giving the referee no choice but to award a penalty.
Messi himself stepped up to take the spot-kick, and he calmly slotted the ball past Cech to make it 2-0.
The goal sucked the life out of the Emirates crowd, and Barca kept the ball to frustrate the wounded Gunners.
Barca were nowhere near their best on Tuesday night, but their pedigree shone through against a battling Arsenal unit.
Wenger was hugely disappointed after the final whistle after his team gave a strong account of themselves on Tuesday, per the club's official Twitter account:
The second leg takes place at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, March 16.