Arsenal bow out as Barcelona stars emphasise gulf in class
Goals from Neymar, Suarez and Messi send the Gunners packing as Wenger insists the season is not over
Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 [Barcelona win 5-1 on aggregate]
As predicted there was no stunning Champions League victory for Arsenal against the mighty Barcelona in the Camp Nou last night. The Gunners gamely went down 3-1 as Barca's much vaunted front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all scored and Arsene Wenger's team exited the competition at the last 16 stage for the sixth year in a row.
Barring a dramatic final few weeks in the Premier League, Arsenal are therefore fated to end the season without a trophy and, on the evidence of recent performances, their biggest challenge may be to qualify for next season's Champions League.
In all competitions in 2016 Arsene Wenger's men have won just six of 17 matches, a shocking slump of form that prompted a savage attack from Roy Keane at the end of Wednesday's defeat to Barcelona. “It tells you that they’ve got a weak group of players, who can’t seem to lift it for certain games," Keane said in his role as an ITV pundit. "No doubt the pressure has got to them in the last few months and for players at Arsenal football club who can’t deal with pressure, then you shouldn’t be there."
Accusing the Arsenal players of "cheating the supporters", Keane continued: "When I played against Arsenal they always had a strong spine to their team. Now looking at this team you’d always fancy your chances because there seems to be a weakness running through, maybe the whole club."
That was a veiled dig at Wenger, who is under increasing pressure in the wake of Arsenal's implosion. The Frenchman lashed out at his critics following Saturday's FA Cup defeat to Watford and he was again on the defensive on Wednesday night. "I'm pleased with the performance," he said. "The quality of our game was good. The performance shows our season is not over."
Yet when it was put to him that a club of Arsenal's stature should be looking to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League, Wenger snapped: "We have gone out against top sides, who went on and won the Champions League after. On one occasion we were completely guilty, against Monaco. The others were against Bayern and Barcelona twice."
That revealing response will be used as further evidence by Wenger's critics that he lacks ambition. Surely he should see his club as a "top side" and be striving to win the competition, not just make it through to the knockout phase.
It's the same in the Premier League, they say, where Wenger and the Arsenal board appear happy with finishing in the top four. In short, Arsenal are trapped in a circle of mediocrity, one that will continue as long Wenger is in charge.
There was nothing mediocre about Barcelona as they progressed to the last eight with ease. Neymar opened the scoring on 18 minutes (shortly after David Ospina had produced a breathtaking save at point-blank range to deny Lionel Messi) and Mohamed Elneny's sweet strike for the visitors shortly after the break proved nothing more than a consolation.
Goals from Luis Suarez, who scored an outrageous volley, and Lionel Messi, whose sublime chip ended the contest, underlined the gulf in class between the two sides and kept Barcelona on course to become the first club since AC Milan in 1989 and 1990 to win back-to-back European Cups.
"The fact we have reached the quarter finals for the ninth year in a row is a great statistic," reflected Barcelona coach Luis Enrique. "I don't know if any other team has done that. I'll be happy whoever we get in the quarter-finals, the only team I wouldn't want to draw is Barca and we can't get them."