Lionel Messi is very good at football, and Arsenal paid the price at home today in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 match, giving up a goal on the counter and penalty to the greatest player of his generation.
Things had started fairly well for Arsenal; the first ten minutes, arguably, saw them with the better chances. Barcelona had possession, but Arsenal had 10 behind the ball, sometimes 11, and the visitors couldn't find any space to create. It looked to be tactical solidity, and Arsenal tried to find goals on the counter. Their passing wasn't totally dialed in, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a great chance 31 minutes in in a goalmouth scramble. However, he shot right at Marc-André ter Stegen. As the match moved towards halftime, Barcelona still sought chances, but Arsenal were the ones finding them. Another counter for the home side saw Ox dribble a little too far, and his 50/50 with Javier Mascherano saw both players in a heap, Ox's ankle the sole casualty.
Barcelona finally had a chance right on halftime, as Dani Alves got behind an Arsenal defense that had switched off a little bit to clip a short cross in. Luis Suarez arrived only to head it just wide of the far post, and Arsenal had escaped. Halftime arrived with no shots on target for the visitors, a rarity in UCL play.
The second half started about the same, but Ox couldn't continue after 50 minutes. Theo Walcott came on as his replacement, and Arsenal really started to push on the counter a bit. As their sense that they could maybe score grew, the looming danger, the creeping death, the fog, the submarines in the deep, also came into existence through some foul Catalan Eldritch portal.
A side that had successfully contained one of the most potent front threes in history through positional discipline started to push a little too hard, and 71 minutes in, a side that had put 10 or 11 behind the ball suddenly faced a break with two defenders standing on halfway. Per Mertesacker slipped, Suarez evaded Laurent Koscielny on the left touchline, and suddenly only Nacho Monreal was back to stop Neymar and Messi. One can imagine how that went; Nacho had to come across, the pass to Messi behind him was on, Messi turned past Cech and finished.
It was a backbreaker, and baffling, and beautiful, beautiful like a shark.
More baffling still was the 82nd minute sub of Mathieu Flamini for Francis Coquelin. A sub that added nothing, a sub with Joel Campbell on the bench, a sub of probably the squad's least-capable player in 2016 whom the squad had replaced in theory with a new signing in January. The impact was immediate; Mertesacker's attempted clearance didn't reach the Frenchman, and Messi was quick to react. Flamini reached in, took out the Argentinian's legs, and the penalty award came. Messi made no mistake.
0 - 2, two away goals for the Champions League favorites, and the tie effectively pulled down into the ground by the cackling, retreating Ancient Terror.
On to Old Trafford.