The three prongs of Barcelona's stellar attacking trident fired in their Champions League tie with Arsenal on Wednesday, as a 3-1 triumph at a rain-soaked Camp Nou saw them through to the quarter-finals by a 5-1 aggregate scoreline.
Neymar netted early to end any slender hopes of a fightback from the Gunners, although the visitors did squander a lot of opportunities. Mohamed Elneny took the first chance of the second period to level things up at 1-1, but Luis Suarez restored Barca's three-goal cushion in the tie with a volley before Lionel Messi rounded off the scoring with a late dinked finish.
A brace from Messi in a 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium had put the holders in a commanding position coming into this clash on home soil.
As the Barcelona Twitter feed showcased ahead of this one, conditions were far from ideal for the two teams on the night:
FC Barcelona @FCBarcelona
☁☔💧 https://t.co/5hR2IEeE7V #FCBArsenal #FCBlive2016-3-16 18:16:38
Teams can be daunted by this iconic stadium, but Arsenal settled the better in the first exchanges. Manager Arsene Wenger had clearly instructed an energetic XI to press high, and they had a couple of half-chances early on, with Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck finding space.
Despite this flurry of pressure from the men in red, Barca always carried a threat, and Messi forced Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina into a stunning stop after showing superb technique to bring down Neymar’s long ball. It was a warning the visitors didn’t heed, though, as they were caught in possession and subsequently punished not long after.
In the 19th minute the Blaugrana won the ball back high up the pitch, allowing Luis Suarez to turn and thread a pass in front of Neymar, who finished calmly past Ospina with his left foot. Here is a look at the goal, via BT Sport Football:
BT Sport Football @btsportfootball
Cool, cool finish by @neymarjr as @FCBarcelona open the scoring. 😎 #UCL #FCBvAFC https://t.co/hutnxofjS92016-3-16 20:10:51
As we can see courtesy of WhoScored.com, it’s a competition the Brazilian has enjoyed in 2015-16:
Neymar: Has been directly involved in 7 goals (3 goals, 4 assists) in 7 Champions League appearances this season2016-3-16 20:05:35
Subsequently, Arsenal’s levels of intensity off the ball dropped, allowing Barcelona to turn the screw in the next phase of the match. Frustrations grew among the visitors, summed up by Mathieu Flamini and Gabriel Paulista both picking up needless yellow cards.
It was an anger they were able to channel into their play eventually. As half-time edged closer, it was the Premier League side who carved out the better openings, with Alex Iwobi, Elneny and particularly Alexis Sanchez all missing fine chances.
When the referee’s whistle blew for the break, the home side will have been relieved to still have their one-goal lead on the night intact. The Daily Mail’s Jonny Singer had praise for the Arsenal boss at half-time despite the scoreline:
Jonny Singer @Jonny_Singer
In all three of those, the team have looked really good against superior opponents. Until an individual error/ignoring his instruction.2016-3-16 20:31:06
After the interval, they continued to go after Barcelona too, and within five minutes, the Gunners were level on the night through Elneny.
The Egyptian midfielder had enjoyed a quietly confident game to this point and in the 50th minute bent a brilliant first-time shot into the top corner. As noted by sports journalist Samuel Marsden, it was always going to take something special to best this Barcelona defence in Europe on home soil:
Samuel Marsden @samuelmarsden
That's the first goal Barça have conceded in a UCL knockout game at Camp Nou since Luis Enrique took charge. Lovely finish, too.2016-3-16 20:56:17
Barcelona seemed unable to spark themselves out of this lull and had to rely on Javier Mascherano to get them out of jail with a superb tackle, with Welbeck primed to burst through on goal. Suddenly, the Camp Nou was a little edgy.
The nerves were settled in due course, though, with Barcelona and Suarez on the right side of what seemed to be a lucky break. After Dani Alves picked him out, the Uruguayan swung a leg at the ball, which subsequently ended up in the top corner.
Initially, it looked like a stunning strike on the volley, although after closer inspection, the former Liverpool forward looked to connect with his shin. However, Sky Sports' Chris Skudder wasn't quite so sure, hailing the strike as a clean one from the 29-year-old:
Chris Skudder @chris_skudder
Just slowed that Suarez goal right down. Not off his shin, he caught it on the top of the outside of his instep. Great goal. #FCBvAFC2016-3-16 21:15:43
Either way, goals have not been tough to come by this season for Suarez, per Squawka Football:
Squawka Football @Squawka
Luis Suárez has scored 43 goals in 42 games across all competitions for Barcelona this season. Out of this world! https://t.co/XpNHc0jJXk2016-3-16 21:09:07
Welbeck hit the bar almost immediately after. But the game looked to finally be up for the visitors, and Barcelona's thoughts clearly began to move towards this weekend's showdown with Villarreal, with both Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic withdrawn.
Rhythm seeped out of the match with the tie over, but there was still time for Messi to make his mark on the game. As Arsenal were caught out committing men forward, they allowed the Barcelona No. 10 to nonchalantly lift an effort over the onrushing Ospina, adding the gloss to a 3-1 scoreline.
OptaJose noted in the aftermath of the strike that the Barcelona man loves playing against the Gunners:
9 - Lionel Messi has the individual record for most #UCL goals against a single opponent (9 vs Arsenal). Monster.2016-3-16 21:38:52
No team has ever retained the Champions League in its current format, which will leave some casting doubts over whether these Barcelona players can pull off such a feat. But what shines through in addition to the affinity and quality this group channels is an insatiable hunger for success; 38 games without defeat is testament to that.
As for Arsenal, Wenger will seek to rally the troops for a charge in the Premier League after this elimination. His team selection for this one suggested he may have one eye on the clash with Everton on Saturday lunchtime, but should he lose there, the pressure will be enormous on the iconic Gunners boss.
Suarez did little to clarify whether his acrobatic effort was meant or not, per AS English:
AS English @English_AS
Q: What did you hit it with? Suárez: I don't know!2016-3-16 21:38:35
Wenger feels his side could have done better on the night, although paid tribute to the performance levels of their opponents, per the Arsenal Twitter feed:
Arsenal FC @Arsenal
Wenger: “The quality of our game was good. I am disappointed with the result as I felt at 1-1 they were wobbling a bit." #FCBvAFC2016-3-16 22:06:48
Arsenal FC @Arsenal
Wenger: “Barcelona have two or three players who transfer normal life into art." #FCBvAFC2016-3-16 22:09:09
Welbeck also lamented a flurry of missed chances for the Gunners. "We had a couple of opportunities where we should have done better and with the quality they have then they are clinical when they have chances," said the forward, per BT Sport, (h/t BBC Sport). "Coming to the Nou Camp you really want to leave your mark, we could have done better in certain situations and it is disappointing."