Luis Enrique twirls his magic wand and Messi delivers

The Argentinean gave Barça a two-goal cushion to take back to Camp Nou. Arsenal stood firm until minute 71 when they were caught on the break.

Luis Enrique twirls his magic wand and Messi delivers
Toby Melville REUTERS

In his pre-match briefing with the press, Arsène Wenger said that there is no such thing as perfection in football but if anything or anyone comes close, it’s Leo Messi. Arsenal and Barça payed their own particular homage to the Beautiful Game as a concept at the Emirates this evening; both teams played a game in which on-field errors were almost non-existent. Neither made a hash of their respective gameplans which is why, the final score was left in the hands, or rather the feet, of exceptional players. Messi appeared to justify the existence of perfection. Maybe Barça are not a perfect team but they have Messi – a player who is capable of arriving two seconds before any opponent to meet a through-ball and whose brain calculates and processes information faster than any product on display at the Mobile World Congress. It’s because of him, that these kinds of encounters are always tipped in Barça’s favour. Luis Enrique’s will take a two-goal cushion to take back to Camp Nou for the second leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie against Arsenal, courtesy of two second half strikes by the Argentinean.

But of course, this was not an entirely single-handed exercise. Behind Messi, there was a towering team – 11 players who toiled from start to finish without the coach making one single substitution.

Ter Stegen was fabulous when he was called on; the two centre-backs gave a text book recital in how to act as a buffer to the most demanding adversaries; Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic wore down Arsenal’s midfielders with their neat possession play... and then, there was Messi.

We saw the very best from both teams in the opening half but as the clock ticked forward, time favoured the Blaugranas. Every Ter Stegen save was a frustration to Arsenal, who crowded their guests out for over an hour and threatened with the odd, razor-sharp counter attack.

In the first half, Barça relied on their goalkeeper and keeping possession of the ball – until the moment Arsenal started to tire. While Wenger brought on fresh legs, Luis Enrique maintained his initial starting XI – even Sergio Busquets was allowed to carry on after taking a knock – the coach explaining afterwards, “I know what ‘SuperBusi’ is like, he’s indestructible”.

Barça knew that they key to the game was knowing when to unpick Arsenal, the brief few seconds when disorder set in. The Gunners suddenly seemed nervous and began enthusiastically attacking Ter Stegen’s goal. The keeper clawed a Giround header off the line, and soon after, Neymar sprinted upfield to tee Messi up for a straightforward tap-in.

From then, Barça knew they had won the battle. Catalans were awarded a penalty when Flamini swung for a loose ball in the box but kicked Messi instead. The Argentine tricked Cech into diving the wrong way to double the lead. The two teams return to play out the return on 16 March with Barça in a commanding position to advance to the quarter-finals.