Lionel Messi returned to haunt Arsenal on Tuesday as a 3-1 win for Barcelona took them into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, with the Spaniards prevailing 4-3 on aggregate.
The mercurial Argentine bagged two goals, to add to the four he scored against the Gunners in last season’s competition, while Xavi also got in on the act at Camp Nou.
An own goal from Sergio Busquets had givenArsenal hope early in the second half, but they were second best throughout and saw their dream die the moment Robin van Persie was shown a second yellow card.
The Gunners found themselves pegged back from the start, unable to find their own passing game as Barca slipped seamlessly into their stride.
Arsene Wenger’s men were then dealt a blow on 19 minutes as Wojciech Szczesny was forced off with a finger injury.
The one-way traffic continued throughout the opening 45 minutes, with Abou Diaby fortunate to get away with a trip on Messi on the edge of the box and Adriano crashing a cross-shot against the post.
A goal was coming and it duly arrived in first-half stoppage-time as Messi, who grew into the game, was freed by Andres Iniesta and expertly lifted the ball over Manuel Almunia before volleying home.
There only looked like being one winner from there, but Arsenal were handed a lifeline on 53 minutes when Busquets inadvertently nodded a Samir Nasri corner into his own net.
Wenger’s men shot themselves in the foot, though, just three minutes later as Van Persie, who had picked up a soft caution in the first half, was controversially dismissed for playing on after the referee had blown his whistle.
It took Barcelona until 69 minutes to edge themselves back in front against the 10 men, with Xavi the right man in the right place as he sprung forward to force the ball past Almunia.
Messi then wrapped things up from the penalty spot two minutes later after Pedro had been felled by Laurent Koscielny.
As expected, Barcelona went on the offensive from kick-off, cheered on by a passionate 95,000-strong crowd in Camp Nou.
Koscielny made an important early block on Pedro and when the visitors did get possession, they were greeted by a cacophony of deafening whistles.
Koscielny and Jack Wilshere combined to deny Messi after, in a sign of things to come, Arsenal again gave away possession far too cheaply.
The Gunners were forced into a change on 19 minutes when goalkeeper Szczesny had to be replaced by Almunia after injuring his left hand making a routine save from Daniel Alves’ long-range free-kick.
Barcelona continued to press Arsenal back, with Johan Djourou producing a superb saving tackle to deny Xavi with Pedro drilling the loose ball over the crossbar.
The hosts then almost fluked an opening goal on 35 minutes when a curled cross from left-back Adriano struck the outside of the near post.
Tempers boiled over when Wilshere went to ground as he stretched for a loose ball at the edge of the Barcelona penalty area, the home players claiming a dive which led to Van Persie and former Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano squaring up before calm was eventually restored.
Van Persie had not calmed down and picked up a needless yellow card on the stroke of half-time for barging Alves over.
Fabregas, returning to his boyhood club for the first time, then inexplicably tried to back-heel the ball to Wilshere on the edge the Arsenal penalty area, but gave it straight to Iniesta.
Messi was away and brilliantly chipped Almunia before lashing the ball into the empty net.
Arsenal looked to be facing an uphill battle for the second half, but were presented with a gift on 53 minutes.
Nasri got away down the left and won a corner which he swung into the six-yard box where Busquets headed past his own goalkeeper.
The tie then took another twist when Van Persie latched onto a through-ball, but was ruled offside, which looked marginal.
The Holland forward lashed the ball wide and was shown a second yellow card, swiftly followed by a red.
Van Persie and the Arsenal players could not believe it, as the striker claimed he could not hear the whistle.
Barcelona started the onslaught almost immediately, with first Villa and then Messi denied by a couple of brave blocks from Almunia.
The Catalans finally regained the advantage on 69 minutes when Xavi slotted home after being played in following a quick exchange between Iniesta and Villa.
Before Arsenal could regroup, Barcelona were awarded a penalty when Koscielny tripped Pedro and Messi slotted it into the bottom corner to put Barcelona within touching distance of the last eight.
Wenger sent on Andrey Arshavin and then Nicklas Bendtner, replacing Fabregas, but it was more in hope than expectation.
Almunia denied Barcelona another goal with good blocks from Messi and substitute Ibrahim Afellay.
Bendtner was agonisingly close to connecting with Wilshere’s cross into the six-yard box, but it was not to be for the Gunners.
Courtesy of Skysports.com