Right up till the 71st minute, Arsenal must have been thinking: "Alright, we're still in it. Not bad."
Yes, not bad at all. In fact Arsenal were good. They were good at doing something which is really not their thing, in fact they hate doing it. Arsenal aren't really big on sitting back. They don't park buses. They like driving a McLaren F1, and it is a good car. It was the fastest in the world some time ago. But guess what; better, faster, sexier cars have now overtaken it.
While Arsenal still roll with the F1, albeit with an upgraded Mesul Özil chassis, Alexis Sanchez engine and a Petr Cech-plated carbon fibre body, Barcelona drive a mashup of a Bugatti, Lamborghini and a Ferrari — better known as Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
The Gunners did make a good race of it though. They not only held their own in a nervy minute-by-minute Chelsea-esque display, they also had more and better sights at goal than the colossi from Catalan. Even with an almost 70 per cent possession till 70 minutes, Barcelona didn't really bother Cech.
In fact, Barcelona failed to register a shot on target in the first half of a Champions League game for the first time since November 2013. Arsenal, on the other hand, wasted many chances — good ones — against the best team in the world. So, they had it coming. In the next 12 minutes, Messi did what he hadn't done in 10 hours and 11 minutes of football against Petr Cech — he scored. Twice.
The Gunners displayed nervous concentration to keep Barca at bay, but it is difficult to sustain it. You can't really blame them. Sure, both goals came out of faults of their own, but Barcelona and Messi gave them a lesson in precision and efficiency when the chance to go ahead came calling.
Arsene Wenger said he was frustrated with the naivety exhibited by his team. But can you really stop Messi, Suarez and Neymar from scoring against you? You've got to be naive to think you'll stop all three of them from scoring over two legs. If you manage to stop two of them, the third one will get you.
MSN, as the moniker goes, is the greatest attacking trio in the history of world football. They have now scored a combined 93 goals between them this season — much more than what a good high-scoring team manages in an entire season. Arsenal cannot really match them with a £150 million team, but Wenger needs to realise that they almost did. What if they had better attacking options than Olivier Giroud, Alex Oxlade Chamberlaine, and Theo Walcott? Maybe Messi would've still scored those two goals, but maybe Arsenal too would have goals of their own.
Giroud is good. But he has rarely been better than just good. He has purple patches and then long pauses. Sanchez can't really carry the burden of creating, passing, running like a mad dog and score goals as well. At least not in game after game. Wenger then has Danny Welbeck as backup. But somehow, it feels like Giroud and Welbeck are the backups for a non-existent, top-tier, mystery striker that Arsenal do not have. How long have Gooners been praying for a striker like that? A Benzema, a Cavani, a Lacazette, a Griezmann? The fact is, players of the calibre of Özil and Sanchez deserve better strikers in front of them.
We all know how Wenger likes to preserve the ecosystem of his Arsenal team. He is not a brat in the transfer window. After years of a lean phase since the move to Emirates, Arsenal today have a good enough wallet. Perseverance and Puma deal have helped. They did splurge on Özil and Sanchez and have been reaping the benefits since. This season, Arsenal plugged another hole in the team when they landed Cech for a mere £10 million. The difference is for all to see. The former Chelsea custodian has been Arsenal's best this season if you don't count Özil.
The point is, transfers help if you put your money where your brain is. There's no sin in spending a bit. Arsenal, riding what could be their best chance to win the Premier League in years, didn't bolster their striking options in two transfer windows allotted for the season. And if you are having a tough time keeping up in the Premier League, Europe is only going to make things tougher. Arsenal needed depth in attack this season, just like seasons before this, but they preferred to stick with Olivier 'moody' Giroud and Danny 'injured' Welbeck in the summer and chose not go for any alternatives in January as well. Giroud has scored 12 goals in the Premier League and five in the Champions League, a good number. But he didn't score last night. There lies the difference.
Some time ago, Wenger made a point that people hail Leicester City for doing what they have done this season with their shoestring budget and then chastise him for not spending in the transfer window. And we get what he's saying. There is romance in Leicester's story this season and in Arsenal's story of the last decade. But Arsenal aren't Leicester and their ambitions don't even compare. Leicester couldn't afford Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. And even if they somehow could, the two wouldn't exactly be thrilled to play for the Foxes. But they are pretty thrilled to play for Arsenal. And Wenger, for all his genius, hasn't done anything to help them this season.
What are your thoughts?