Wenger's men forced to chase shadows

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The Independent Football

Another evening of chasing shadows for Arsenal; another season of watching someone else picking up the silverware for manager Arsène Wenger. There was no shame in the manner of their Champions League exit to the reigning European champions, who are capable of moments of such glorious football.

Yet the genius of Lionel Messi's four-goal display could not mask the fact that the Premier League now remains Arsenal's only chance of winning something for the first time in five years, since the 2005 FA Cup final victory, and their chances do not look all that promising as they are three points behind leaders Chelsea with five games to go.

Although the scoreline mercilessly portrayed the extent of the disparity of the two teams last night, Arsenal did have one chance to turn the course of the game on its head. They unexpectedly took the lead in the 19th minute when Abou Diaby was given the benefit of the doubt with a challenge in midfield on Sergi Busquets and passed to Theo Walcott, whose centre was finished at the second attempt by Nicklas Bendtner.

The Nou Camp was stunned, as until then Arsenal had been unable to keep hold of the ball for anything longer than a few seconds. Yet moments later, they had the chance to double their lead. The ball was again at Diaby's feet, and again Walcott was on the shoulder of full-back Eric Abidal, ready to sprint behind the Barcelona back four.

But this time Diaby dallied too long, and before they knew it the chance had passed, and with it went Arsenal's slim hopes. A minute after Diaby's missed opportunity, Messi scored the first of his spectacular first-half hat-trick and the visitors' fate was sealed.

Perhaps Diaby was simply tired after all the chasing and harrying he had been doing in the first few minutes, for Arsenal came out with greater energy and purpose than they had done at the Emirates a week ago. They harried, but still Barcelona enjoyed an embarrassing amount of possession, particularly in the opening quarter of the game. Arsenal were pressing more, but fouling more, and not winning any more possession. And when they did have a chance to play, they seemed to lose their nerve and the ball in quick succession. The first time Arsenal managed to string together a move of more than three passes came in the 24th minute. And by that time Messi had begun to show the full extent of his genius.

Wenger has spoken at length about the inexperience of his side, but it was Barcelona who were the more youthful last night, with a front three of Messi (22), Pedro (22) and Bojan Krkic (19).

The visitors saw much more of the ball in the second half, but their confidence had been shaken by the magnificence of Messi.

Twice Arsenal hit the Barcelona woodwork in the second half, but both times the flag was up for off-side, as if to emphasise the futility of the visitors' efforts. In the final moments of the match, the Nou Camp crowd cheered "ole" at every Barcelona pass, before Messi applied the coup de grace with a simply brilliant final goal.