Champions League quarter-final, second leg
Lionel Messi blows Arsenal away with four goals for Barcelona
It was a grand occasion but one that Arsenal ultimately attended as unwilling spectators. Despite taking the lead, they joined everyone else at Camp Nou in awe-struck admiration of Lionel Messi. Even by his standards the three goals he had already claimed by the interval displayed an uncanny combination of audacity and finesse.
Visiting defenders such as Thomas Vermaelen went through miseries but everyone in Messi's path was in danger of anguish. Messi did not even sink entirely into a tactful ineffectiveness in the second half. A fourth goal after 88 minutes came after he had run from the centre towards the left and, when Manuel Almunia stopped the first effort, the next went through the goalkeeper's legs.
This had seemed an awkward situation for Barcelona, with the team not quite establishing its rhythm initially and then falling behind to a Nicklas Bendtner goal. With Arsenal in front there might have been panic in the ranks of the opposition but Pep Guardiola has in his already excellent team an unanswerable individual
Messi had completed a hat-trick by half-time, showing a finesse that ensured there could be terrible consequences of any mistake or ill-luck for the visitors. The Argentinian levelled after the ball had broken back to him off Mikaël Silvestre in the 21st minute. Following a run by Eric Abidal, the ball broke from Vermaelen and Seydou Keita set him up to score once more. Three minutes from half-time a Keita header put possession behind a suffering Vermaelen. The chip with which Messi took his third would have felt arrogant had it not been so exquisite.
If it had somehow been feasible to annul Messi's impact, this would have been a lively contest. Daunting though Barcelona are, there was at first no obvious repeat of the intimidating superiority exercised at the Emirates. Arsenal were even to savour the opener, although they were soon disconsolate. There had even been early if false hints of a common fallibility between the sides when Gabriel Milito sent the ball out of play while attempting to pick out Keita.
It is hard work to imagine Arsène Wenger being obsessed with defending when the whole tenor of his ambition concerns fluent attacking. All the same nobody comes to Camp Nou without a wariness of the opposition. The Arsenal manager had to reflect on his back four at length because of the devastation Barcelona are accustomed to wreaking.
Just as in the first leg, Wenger named Sol Campbell as a substitute. A calf strain sustained against Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend could be offered as an explanation but the veteran was in good enough condition to sit on the bench. Most likely, Wenger craved whatever mobility he could find and preferred Silvestre in the starting line-up. The choice made no difference to Barcelona.
After the 2-2 draw at the Emirates Arsenal were at a disadvantage and had to consider where goals might come from here. It was natural therefore that he should include Theo Walcott in the starting line-up since any introduction of him from the bench might have come when it was too late for him to change the course of events.
Both the Barcelona centre-backs at the Emirates were suspended, yet the back four was enhanced in some senses. Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol may have been excluded but the pairing of Rafael Márquez and Milito was fashioned out of experienced campaigners. Abidal's involvement after injury also made it seem that there had been an upgrade at left-back, with Maxwell on the bench.
Nonetheless Arsenal did go in front, even if the move seemed to involve an unpenalised foul by Abou Diaby on Milito. Walcott raced behind the defence and, although Bendtner's initial attempt was saved by the goalkeeper, he converted the rebound. Little of what ensued could be savoured by Arsenal.
The best that Arsenal could say of this match is that the interval sapped even Messi. It would have taken a sadist to go on inflicting such suffering after 15 minutes when he could have reflected that the assignment had already been completed. Substitutions played a part, too, in adding a touch of the mundane to proceedings.
Guardiola had in mind the task of retaining all the trophies over the next month or two. Absurd as it felt in this context, Arsenal, too, had a prize to consider. Their ambitions in regard to the Premier League are not at an end, even if the likelihood is that the period without a trophy that began after the 2005 FA Cup will not end in this campaign.
Barcelona did occasionally pull everyone's thoughts back to the action here. Messi, for instance, could not always marginalise himself and he did put Keita clear for an attempt that drifted beyond the post in the 72nd minute. It has to be borne in mind that this was far from the line-up Wenger would have chosen to employ.
Anyone on his books would have felt under strain against Barcelona but a Cesc Fábregas or William Gallas would have enhanced the quality. As it is, though, Arsenal may reflect that they have conceded too many goals this season, even when the opponents were not faintly reminiscent of majestic Barcelona.