Those at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday evening bemoaned the lack of action and nerves on show, but there was a similar sensation at the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Arsene Wenger may have issued a pre-match call to arms in Barcelona, but in truth Arsenal were fighting only for pride. They played with heart and spirit, but those are characteristics patronisingly attributed to the losers. The winners march on, just as we always knew they would.
“We want to make the impossible possible and we know we play against a very strong, strong side,” said Wenger on Monday. “We will not rest players. No, no, no, no. It’s important we go there and focus and show a very good response.”
If Arsenal’s manager stayed true to his promise, Alex Iwobi is now ahead of Joel Campbell in the first team. At some point Campbell may fancy knocking on his manager’s door and asking quite what he has to do to merit a run in the starting XI. Olivier Giroud is also now out of the frame, with Danny Welbeck preferred up front. Francis Coquelin was reportedly not fit enough to start the game, but was then able to play more than 45 minutes. Alternatively, this was a manager admitting defeat.
Wenger’s insistence that his Arsenal side could overturn their first leg deficit was, of course, based on fantasy. Barcelona have lost three of their last 289 home games by two or more goals. They were never in danger of number four, whatever BT Sport’s Darren Fletcher tried to claim.
That is not to say that there were not signs of Arsenal promise. Wenger’s side had eight shots in the first half, and after the break Mohamed Elneny scored the first Champions League home goal Barcelona have conceded under Luis Enrique. Iwobi looked bright, while Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil created chances for themselves and others. The visitors’ profligacy in front of goal epitomises their deflated confidence.
If the equaliser caused a momentary flutter of panic, it soon subsided. Luis Suarez’s volley was worthy of sealing any tie, flying off his shin into the top corner; it was the Uruguayan’s 43rd goal of the season. The last quarter of the match was played at walking pace, with Lionel Messi’s finish the icing on a sweet cake. Enrique’s side are the favourites to defend this competition for the first time since Milan in 1990.
Suarez’s majesty raises a pertinent point on Arsenal’s stagnancy, given that it is less than three years since Arsenal’s £40,000,001 bid. As recently as December, Wenger publicly stated his confusion that supporters were demanding that the club signed Karim Benzema last summer.
“I could not understand the frustration of the fans,” Wenger said. “We had Giroud, but we also had Theo Walcott who I believe is a world-class striker, we had Alexis Sanchez who is a world-class striker, and we had Danny Welbeck who is a world-class striker.” At what point does optimism transform fully into naivety?
Funnily enough, it turns out Barcelona’s three world-class forwards are better than Arsenal’s four, despite Wenger using each over the 90 minutes. That is one of the club’s many issues to solve this summer. Just like last summer. And the summer before. And the summ…
“There isn’t much analysis you can do,” concluded Fletcher as the match clicked into stoppage time. “Barcelona are just better. But it’s fair to say that Arsenal haven’t been humiliated or embarrassed.”
That’s exactly the point. This was not an evening on which further harm could be inflicted upon Wenger’s reputation, but that is principally because the damage had already been done. Praising Arsenal for their endeavour while losing a match seems like the ultimate damnation with faint praise. Being complimented for not being embarrassed is what happens to Villarreal or Celta Vigo, not to Arsenal.
There is no shame in losing to this Barcelona, but Arsenal can blame nobody but themselves for this mess. Beat Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos and they might have topped the group and avoided the defending champions. Perform to expectations domestically and this would not have felt like a season-ending night.