"It's wonderful playing with them," Lionel Messi told UEFA.com after Luis Suárez and Neymar's help at Arsenal left Barcelona with one foot in the last eight.
Article top media content
Given the pre-match hype surrounding Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar's phenomenal goalscoring exploits, Arsenal did a remarkable job to keep them quiet for three-quarters of this UEFA Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie.
Indeed, the home side had even begun to get on top midway through the second period. As ever, though, with the opposition pushing upfield, Barcelona proved at their most dangerous. They leapt from defence to attack in the 71st minute, Suárez on the left touchline feeding Neymar who surged forward and – with Arsenal stretched to the limit – squared to Messi to score.
It was over in a flash – Arsenal's best efforts for more than an hour undone by the most lethal triumvirate in world football. "It was a very fast break which is how we like to play – with open space – and luckily we were able to do that," Messi, the man of the match, told UEFA.com. "Neymar passed to me and I managed to score. It's wonderful playing with them. We get along really well on and off the pitch. We really are friends and that is really important to enable us to play this kind of football."
At its flowing best, that style of game is astonishing. At times, the trio were even guilty of over-passing, so keen are they to bring each other into play. At one moment Messi took turns to tee up Neymar and then Suárez who smacked the ball against the post. When substitute Mathieu Flamini brought down Messi soon after coming on, the Argentinian swept in the 83rd-minute penalty – his 29th goal of the season and the 93rd the 'MSN' front line have produced this term.
Barcelona's ease up front is in stark contrast to Arsenal's striking difficulties, and target man Olivier Giroud voiced his team's disappointment. The Frenchman worked tirelessly, but when it looked like he would finally be rewarded on the hour mark, Marc-André ter Stegen stuck out a hand to tip away his goal-bound header.
"That was maybe the turning point," Giroud said. "The keeper did very well. I am very frustrated because we played well but it was not enough. We couldn't score in the first half when we played well on the counterattack and were dangerous. But we couldn't finish our work and it's a shame because at the end of the day it's 2-0 down and our chances of qualifying are very small.
"I said beforehand that we need to be cautious and that if we cannot win the game we can't concede goals to keep our chances for the second leg – even if at Camp Nou it is very, very difficult to win. We can have regrets tonight."
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed the best opportunity of the first half, shooting tamely at Ter Stegen with the keeper stranded, and it cost the Gunners dear. For the fourth straight campaign they have lost the first leg of their last-16 tie by two goals at home.
Their chances of progress appear all but over, even if Messi insists there is still plenty for Barça to do. "It was a difficult match – we played against a great team and we had to work hard and dig deep to get this result," he said. "The second leg won't be easy, just like this game, but of course we are going to play to win from the off."