Definite case of mixed emotions this morning, on one hand we restricted the best strike trio in world football to a limited amount of chances for almost 70 minutes, Arsène Wenger who is often critiqued for his tactical acumen set up his team almost perfectly against this impressive Barcelona team. But missed chances and defensive errors haunt me a little today.
When the ball fell at the feet of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with only the keeper to beat early in the first half, he fluffed his lines and mishit a shot straight at the keeper who was already committed to make the save. There aren't many cleaner strikers of a ball in the squad than Oxlade-Chamberlain yet when the moment came, he could not deliver. That was a huge moment for him and for Arsenal. He had been playing very well down the right before his injury but two moments, the shot and the heavy touch which prevented a chance at the back post. It also resulted in his game being cut short after a collision with Javier Mascherano, and that meant the Arsenal vs Barcelona story had to be written a different way. Had we scored the opener, who knows how the game would have panned out.
Arsenal were rather strange last night in many ways, fantastic off the ball for 70 minutes, remarkably organised and disciplined. Like a team who play that way every single week but in possession we looked like a team who do not practice the passing game. Ironic really.
Wenger said: "Barcelona is a great team. We put a lot of energy in the game and technically we were very average,"
You cannot deny that really. Usually it is because a team like Barcelona press you into mistakes but it was probably the least 'pressy' Barcelona performance I have seen against us. Maybe it was the occasion, maybe the players were not relaxed enough but our build up play was not good enough for long periods.
Even with that handicap we were still very much in the game at 0-0, we looked dangerous when near their box and I was convinced that if we held onto the clean sheet, we would have gone on to score, much in the way we did against Bayern Munich a few months ago now.
But like on those old roadrunner cartoons, we threw a grenade towards Barcelona by attacking them, shut our eyes and plugged our ears with our fingers while the grenade bounced back underneath us.
The disciplined shape that proved so stubborn had vanished in a flash as Barcelona counter attacked us. Coquelin lost a challenge with Iniesta and jogged back, perhaps he was tired after an exhausting first 45 but he did not sprint back to recover as we've seen many times in the past. Per Mertesacker for some reason had committed to a tackle far (far) too high up the pitch.
Monreal had little choice but to plug in the Mertesacker sized hold at centre back so Messi said thank you very much and waltzed into Monreal's vacant space down his right.
Now here is an image of roughly the same shot but I have cut out Mertesacker, flipped him around and dropped him back at centre back on the cover.
His presence totally changes the threat of that attack compared to how it went down last night. Now I do not want to bash Mertesacker because he had a very good game aside for his role in the two goals. He had made important blocks and tackles which saved us in the first half but this tendency to go charging up the pitch is not a rare thing, we've been caught out a few times already which means there are probably more examples where we were not punished.
Who knows, maybe had he intercepted that Barcelona pass, he would have played an Özilesque through pass to Alexis to put us a goal up but I just don't see the need to take that sort of risk. To be fair to him though, the midfield did not offer much in the way of protection on that break, if there was then maybe he would not have felt the need to dive in.
Anyway Messi's finish was typical Messi and Barcelona gained the vital advantage.
Danny Welbeck looked bright when he came on late and looks a good bet to force his way into our starting eleven with another high energy cameo.
Five minutes from time Arsène Wenger replaced Coquelin for Flamini. I don't know what the reason was, perhaps fatigue, maybe a knock, maybe he was at risk of another booking. Arsène doesn't replace Coquelin for no reason but seeing Flamini run on didn't fill me with much confidence I must say. Before he even touched the ball he chopped down Messi in the box but the blame has to be equally portioned here. It was Per Mertesacker's hospital pass that created the situation.
Messi dispatched the penalty to Cech's right and the game and tie was well and truly done.
So here is the thing, at full time I felt rather proud that we stopped Barcelona for long spells, and created some good chances ourselves. We have some tough away matches to play from now until May, starting on Sunday and if we approached those games in the same manner we will get results, no question about that. But our finishing is a real concern, all of a sudden we look like a side without a natural scorer. Nobody is finding the net with any real consistency right now and we cannot win the title or retain the cup without goals going in the right end, even if we defend very well. We have to hope that we can fix that cyclic thingy and fast.
Wenger was right last night, Barcelona are better than us. It's simple, there is no shame in saying that. They were always big favourites to get through this tie and we all knew this so there is little point crying about the result today.
What is more important in my opinion is that we use the positives from this game and use them in our fixtures to follow, at the same time fix the issues that need fixing. Like a little finishing practice perhaps and also not racing out of your position for no reason practice. That's how I reckon Arsène has it structured on his clip board.
Anyway, now to the important stuff on Sunday. Win that and this game will soon be forgotten about.