Magical Messi has Gunners clutching at thin air

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I don’t understand this. Do any of you?

Cesc Fábregas. OUT. William Gallas. OUT. Robin van Persie. OUT. Andrey Arshavin. EXHAUSTED AFTER CHEWING GUM. Yes sir, injury-ravaged Arsenal have it all to do tonight at the home of the reigning European champions.

Having said that, there is hope. The New Pele (Previously Trading Under The Names Galoot, Oaf and Zlatan Ibrahimovic) is out injured; Lionel Messi hasn’t scored a hat-trick for 15 days; and with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique both suspended, Rafa Márquez – who has the turning circle of the 11.27 from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley, and the mobility of a breakfast bar with solid pine worktop and four stools – may well feature at some point.

Balancing out the aforementioned Márquez Problem: Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for Mr SJ Campbell.

It is, whichever way you spin it, on. With the score poised at 2-2 after the first leg down Ashburton Grove, Arsenal need to score. Barcelona, meanwhile, so the cliché goes, live to score. Given the genetic make-up of both teams – a needlessly obtuse and pompous way of saying they’re both awful at the back – this could be a classic. A slapstick classic, but a classic nonetheless.

Kick off: 7.45pm.

Barcelona: Valdes, Dani Alves, Marquez, Milito, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Pedro, Bojan, Messi.
Subs: Pinto, Iniesta, Henry, Maxwell, Toure Yaya, Fontas, Jeffren.

Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Vermaelen, MIKAEL SILVESTRE!!!, Clichy, Denilson, Diaby, Walcott, Nasri, Rosicky, Bendtner.
Subs: Fabianski, Eduardo, Eboue, Traore, Merida, Eastmond, Bloke Who Cleans The Windows, Bloke Who Cleans The Traps, Lady Who Makes The Tea, Campbell.

Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany).

Players on yellows, one saucy tackle away from a suspension: Abou Diaby, Gael Clichy, and nobody whatsoever for Barcelona. Puyol and Pique apart, that’s some good behavin’, and a mighty clean slate.

The weather: It’s a clear if not quite balmy night in Barcelona, with a high temperature of 15°C, according to this Uefa handout I’ve got. Humidity levels are at 45%, whatever that means. Rain in Glasgow.

Barcelona’s defence: the debate. “Awful at the back?” splutters Duncan Hawthorne. “Are you sure you’re talking about the same Barça that has the best defensive record in La Liga, and has done for the past few years? I’d like to see your definition of a tough nut to crack!” Well, OK, but: (1) their attack nearly always has the ball, against stragglers in sub-SPL farce La Liga to boot, so how can you judge the defence?; (2) their first-choice central defensive partnership, and Maxwell, didn’t look particularly clever at the Emirates once Arsenal worked up a head of steam; and (3) two points are never enough to conclusively settle an argument about football, are they, I should never have started a numbered list.

Arsenal’s defence: the debate. “I understand Silvestre isn’t an ideal replacement for Gallas,” writes Casey Harverstick. “But he can run around. Yes, the implication is that Sol cannot.”

Arsenal’s Bloke Who Cleans The Windows: the debate. “Judging from the absence of a chamois, a squeegee and a bucket, that bloke looks like he’s a window fixer,” observes Michael Day. “This of course puts him another rung up the ladder and more likely to be wrapped in cotton wool tonight to be saved for the league run-in.” Eh? How do you fix a window? (And no, I don’t count the frame as part of the window itself.) Either it’s broken or it’s not. There’s no going back once it is, no matter what that chancer Gav from the Autoglass advert tells you. “If my reading of Jonathan Wilson is correct,” adds Zach Neeley, “with Barca’s high pressing and Dani Alves going forward, Bloke Who Cleans the Windows will able to be get into space on the right. He does his best work on the outside, probably much better at keeping things clean than Silvestre.”

The 11.27 from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley: the debate. “Sorry Scott, but the 11.27 only gets as far as York before you have to change,” mumbles James Waldron through a mouthful of meatpaste sandwich with the crusts cut off, before wiping the bottle-thick lenses of his glasses on a suspiciously crusty-looking shirt tail.

Here come the players. Both sides line up in the Nou Camp tunnel, Barcelona in their famous red-and-blue striped shirts, Arsenal in white ones, trying on that we’re-a-bit-like-Real-Madrid-us wind-up Liverpool pulled in the semi-final of the 2001 Uefa Cup, a stunt that doesn’t quite have the same effect these days. Eventually they all waltz down a red carpet, out onto the green carpet, listen to that bloody anthem, shake hands, then line up for the game. It is on!

And we’re off! Barcelona kick off, and pass it round a lot. Milito eventually wallops a long ball down the left in Messi’s direction, but it’s straight through to Almunia.

2 min: Another long ball down the left by Barca, again for Messi. This one flies out of play for a goal kick, but the Barca striker was closer to getting on the end of that. Are they targeting Sagna? Meanwhile Michael Day appears obsessed with Bloke Who Cleans The Windows. “Has it occurred to you that the Emirates ‘window washer’ might actually be involved in espionage? Snooping on the tea lady during her pre-match talks is a pretty sophisticated way to get one up on your opponents.”

4 min: Barcelona have started strongly again, though not in the sort of preposterous fashion they did at the Emirates last week. Messi cuts inside from the left and unleashes a low shot towards the bottom-right corner. it’s deflected off an Arsenal leg, then tipped round the post by Almunia. The corners – for there are two of them – are hopeless. It’s just like watching the Premier League.

6 min: Rosicky falls while chasing a long ball, just outside the Barcelona area, under pressure from Marquez. He’s looking for a free kick, but doesn’t get it, very much the sort of decision that always goes the way of the home side in a match. In other news, Alec Cochrane has made the mistake of paying close attention to Sky: “Richard Keys just introduced Ruud Gullit and Graeme Souness as having won the Champions League five times between them. And they didn’t argue with him. Do they not care about what this has become?” I doubt it very much, as they stand there in their bespoke coats, so well tailored you can’t see the bulging wallets in their pockets. But does anyone care any more? The war is over. We’re all so tired.

9 min: Arsenal have hardly touched the thing. Diaby stamps on Xavi’s foot, and is fortunate to escape the caution that’d keep him out of any semi-final. But Barca are fannying around a lot in the middle of the park, this certainly isn’t the whirlwind start we saw last week.

11 min: Wow. Messi did bugger all at the Emirates, but he’s now had two shots in anger towards the Arsenal goal. This one was something out of nothing, a poor clearance by Silvestre falling to his feet just to the right of the D. He shifts the ball to the left, and curls a pacy shot towards the top-left corner, all in micro-milliseconds. The ball just flies over the bar – just – and I’m not totally convinced Almunia (at full stretch) would have got there.

15 min: On the whole, it’s a bit shapeless, this, tell the truth.

17 min: Milito slides in on Nasri, causing the Arsenal man some pain in his leg end. He’s got to go off for attention, but all the signs suggest he’ll be OK, (writes Dr Murray, who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, not really, and should be struck off).

18 min: Now Denilson goes in on Busquets. This is getting a bit tasty, this.

19 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 0-1 Arsenal. And this is a tasty challenge by Diaby, who crunches hard on Milito in the centre circle, then powers forward. He clips an instant pass out right to Walcott, who’s clear down the wing! He romps into the box, and unselfishly passes inside to Bendtner, facing an empty net in the centre. Valdes, who’d come out to meet Walcott, somehow gets back to make a save at Bendtner’s feet, but the Arsenal striker gets up immediately from the wreckage of that weak effort and chips confidently home. Arsenal were two down in this tie, and now look!

20 min: Diaby nearly repeats his tackle-and-pass combo to set Walcott free again, but fluffs his shot. What a chance to go two up against a rocking Barcelona.

21 min: AN INSTANT RESPONSE!!! Barcelona 1-1 Arsenal. A ball bouncing around the edge of the Arsenal box is clipped goalward by Messi. It’s a terrible effort, but it’s not cleared properly by Silvestre, and Messi, on the right-hand edge of the D, takes the ball up again, shifts inside, and unleashes an unstoppable shot into the top-right corner. They’re not European champions for nothing.

24 min: Arsenal haven’t let that blow upset them too much. Clichy storms down the left in space, and only a last-ditch challenge by Alves stops the Arsenal full back finding Bendtner in the middle with his cross. The ball goes out for a corner, which Vermaelen utilises to brush his eyebrows.

27 min: Xabi romps into the Arsenal half, strokes the ball wide right to Pedro, who hoofs the ball into the top-left corner of the stadium. “Wenger must be livid,” suggests Niall Mullen. “His team are going in hard and late. That’s not the Arsenal way, is this a mutiny?”

29 min: Pedro has had a pooor couple of minutes. Now he gives the ball away in the centre to Walcott. Busquets cynically sticks a boot in to stop his gallop before the winger can get clear down the right. Nothing comes of this, but Walcott clearly puts the wind up Barcelona.

31 min: Denilson is booked for what looks like a clean tackle on Messi, 35 yards out at least, fairly much in the centre. Dani Alves takes a frankly disrespectful whack at goal; Almunia gathers easily enough.

33 min: Messi diddles down the right, cutting into the box and lashing a shot into the side netting …

34 min: … and now Bendtner is now caught an inch offside, chasing after a clever reverse pass down the inside-left channel by Rosicky. This is another very enjoyable game to watch.

36 min: And it continues to flow freely. Bojan isn’t too far from getting a toe on the end of a low cross from Alves out on the right.

37 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal. This is quite the aesthete’s pleasure. Abidal is sprung clear down the left by a cracker of a sliderule pass from Messi. He’s got two team-mates in the centre, but the low cross is behind both Bojan and Pedro. The latter is the first to react, nipping back and tapping the ball to the inrushing Messi, who on the penalty spot drops a shoulder to slide a tad right before dinking the ball over the advancing Almunia and into the net. Just lovely to watch, and the move had a bloody awful pass bang slap in the middle of it as well. Eh?

40 min: Messi, though. Dear me.

42 min: AND IT JUST GETS BETTER. Lionel Messi 3-1 Arsenal. I was just typing that the second goal doesn’t make a difference to Arsenal, because at 1-1 they still needed to score. But this changes everything. Messi tears free down the inside-left channel, the Arsenal back line all over the shop. He’s clear on goal, and the minute he reaches the area, the ball’s chipped delightfully over Almunia and into the empty net. That was so delicately executed, Antonin Panenka on a walkalator.

45 min: Arsenal look stunned. And a wee bit queasy. Twenty-one minutes that hat-trick took. Twenty-one.

45 min +1: Nasri goes on a determined run straight down the middle of the park. It’s Arsenal’s most dangerous-looking move for a long while, with Walcott poised to burst clear down the right, but the eventual pass forward is way too strong. Not even Walcott at top speed could catch that.

HALF TIME: Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal. Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi. Argentina for the World Cup, then?

FULL TIME REPORT with David Wall: “What might this do to Arsenal’s title chances?” he wonders, having already written them off for this one. “This is only going to get worse for them and, seeing themselves as battling against the odds already with the recent injuries, it’s pretty difficult to pick yourself up after getting humiliated. Even Harry Redknapp must be starting to look less hang-dog thinking that Spurs are up next for them.” Wasn’t Jose Mourinho supposed to have jiggered Chelsea’s title chances? And look what’s happened there. This is good news for Arsenal. Woo! Sort of. Well, OK, probably not, but we’ve got to give them something to cling to.

OBSCURE WORD OF THE DAY, WEEK, PROBABLY THE MONTH, AND MAYBE EVEN THE YEAR with Holly McGuire: “I am intrigued by Bloke Who Cleans The Windows and what he’s doing at the Emirates. Doesn’t look like cleaning or fixing. Perhaps pulling old caulking out?”

And we’re off again! Arsenal kick off, keeping hold of the ball for 14 seconds. That nearly doubles their effort during the second quarter of this match. “It’s looking good for Arsenal,” chirps Thomas Jaggers, through a very unsettling fixed rictus. “A repeat of their comeback from two goals down last week and they will be through on away goals. I’m full of confidence.” Have you been at the Gloy?

48 min: Bojan whips in a low cross from the right. Messi, lunging in, is centimetres away from toeing the ball past Almunia, who claims. Meanwhile Clay Campbell fancies a night out at the movies: “Cue the dramatic American movie trailer voiceover: ‘This summer the world will finally see which is the most unstoppable force, the brilliance of Leo Messi or the bumbling ineptitude of Diego Maradona.’ Personally I am coming around to the idea that Messi can overcome Argentina’s tactical disadvantage on a solo mission, and the Bumbling One just prices in the odds at a tasty discount.” Ah, but Maradona is, in fact, the key. It’s surely written. It’s the sort of story the World Cup exists for.

50 min: Walcott isn’t giving this up easily. Twice in ten seconds he tries to burst past Abidal down the right. He’s stopped in his tracks both times, but the Nou Camp was holding its breath. “So Arsenal are on the end of a hiding from the best team in the world, are all but out of the title race and had to choose between Campbell and Silvestre at centre half,” sighs Simon McCarthy. “On the bright side, it looks like the Emirates is furnished with a very attractive set of net curtains. Cheer up Arsene!” And thank you Bloke Who Cleans The Windows Man!

52 min: Maxwell – who was devestated by Walcott last week – comes on for Abidal, who has taken a bit of a knock. “Bloke Who Cleans The Windows is just scraping algae out from the corners,” insists Phil James. “Caulking on plastic double-glazing my arse.”

54 min: Messi does something slightly wrong. As he races towards the box, Pedro in acres down the right, his pass outside is just behind his team-mate. Pedro, the wind taken out of his sails, is forced to clip the ball back inside for Bojan, instead of shooting himself. Bojan takes a pop instead, the ball sailing wide left.

56 min: That was Bojan’s last meaningful touch, Yaya Toure coming on in his stead.

59 min: Arsenal pass it around at the back awhile. Barcelona are more than happy to let them do so, for quite some time, until eventually the visitors get fed up, hoof it long – oh the shame! – and lose the ball with immediate effect. In glazing news, Holly McGuire is not taking any lip from Phil James: “Here is a man caulking a window frame (applying an impermeable seal between frame and drywall), presumably after he pulled the old caulking out.” That’s a textbook caulking technique. The tip of his quiff is pointing exactly in the same the direction of the gun. He’s probably quite good at snooker as well, that bloke.

60 min: Bendtner nearly gets a sniff in the area, but no. Milito comes across and clips the ball off his toes.

62 min: Arsenal are beginning to take chances now. Clichy wallops the ball goalwards from tight on the left touchline. That is ridiculous. Of course, it goes well wide left of target.

64 min: Eboue comes on for Silvestre.

65 min: It’s gone quite quiet in the Nou Camp. A real feeling that this is all over. “On the window cleaner,” begins Jan Krcmar, “in my country (Czech Republic) dissidents and other enemies of the state were commonly forced to work as window cleaners under communism. So maybe that poor fellow is just a member of an illegal political party.”

67 min: Eboue chases a ball down the right with Busquets, slapping his palm in the Barca midfielder’s face. That’s a booking. “Dare we broach the question of what to call it if Messi gets his fourth this evening?” wonders Mike Wilner. “Two goals are a brace, three are a hat-trick. Got a term for four?” Nope. “In American ten-pin bowling, four strikes in a row is sometimes called a hambone. Can Lionel Messi get his hambone tonight?”

69 min: Diaby scuffs a cross from the right wing, but it somehow finds the onrushing Rosicky in a bit of space down the left. It’s half a chance to get a shot on target, albeit a tricky one, and the effort is sliced into the crowd behind. Meanwhile Jona Steenbrink has trenchant views to impart re Man Who Cleans The Windows. “That man is clearly cleaning windows. And I speak with the authority of a former window cleaner. Perhaps the other MBM readers are work-shy n’er do wells oblivious to the equipment involved in cleaning windows?” That’s pretty much a given. “Perhaps they’re just looking for reasons to bandy words like ‘caulk’ about. And who can blame them for that?”

72 min: Arsenal go to sleep, allowing Pedro to tear clear down the inside right channel. He attempts to replicate Messi’s third goal, but chips weakly wide right.

73 min: Clichy curls in a delightful cross from the left, right onto the head of Bendtner. The Arsenal striker Keith Houchens it goalward, but can only direct it onto the bottom of the right-hand post. And he was a shade offside anyway. Shame, because for a split second this game looked on again.

74 min: Rosicky is replaced by Eduardo. Meanwhile, time for The Weather: Hank Janson is giving off some real heat. “Could Andy Gray stop referring to Messi as ‘little man’? He’s not an oompa loompa, for heaven’s sake. You’d think he was the mascot the way he goes on.”

75 min: Clichy robs Alves, tears into the Barca half, then – with a white shirt either side of him, and Marquez and Milito backtracking desperately – attempts a shot himself. Oh dear.

79 min: Barcelona stroke it around at the back. An awful lot. The Nou Camp sings and claps, everyone’s very content, apart from the obvious. “Here in the Deepest South Carolina,” begins Mac Millings, “a hambone is what we call someone who has an unnatural interest in porcine farm animals. Also known as ‘every single South Carolinian’.” Apologies to any readers from South Carolina, but that gag had to be cracked sometime. If it wasn’t you, it’d have been Norfolk.

82 min: Messi scampers down the inside-right channel and into the area. He reaches the byline, checks back, nutmegs Clichy, and is this far from getting to the ball and hammering home his hambone goal.

84 min: From ten yards out, just to the right, Bendtner clips the very tip of the top right-hand corner of the Barcelona goalposts. He was offside anyway. Steve McCabe has a question for Jona Steenbrink (69 minutes). “Then where’s his bucket???”

86 min: To wild cheers, Iniesta comes on for Pedro. “Since MBM readers are likely to be new to caulking, they might want to be aware that the nozzle of a caulking gun must be chopped wide enough to match the intended size of the bead,” begins Paul Whaley. If the opening in the nozzle is too small, the MBMer is going to find their bead is liable to bunch and difficult to keep even. If that happened, the woman in their life would no doubt refuse to make love to them until they had done the job properly.” I do hope your day job isn’t writing instructions for Stanley Tools.

87 min: HAMBONE GOAL!!! Lionel Messi 4-1 Arsenal. Messi tinkers down the centre and into the area. He skates past Eboue, then moves left to evade Vermaelen, before hammering a shot at goal. Almunia saves well, but Messi simply picks up the rebound and slips the ball beneath the desperate keeper’s body and into the net. I’ve not seen a hambone like this for a long time.

90 min: Barcelona have been immense. Well, Lionel Messi has been immense. But let’s not split hairs. “Where’s his bucket?” cries Spencer Jonesm, referring to Bloke Who Clean The Windows, or more specifically the picture of him above. “Steve McCabe clearly thinks the man has no legs either. Steve – there are things that exist that aren’t in the image taken by the soul stealing flashing-picture box. Do not be alarmed. The correct question is ‘why is he using a screwdriver, not a squeegee? ‘ we can only operate with what is in the image, not out. Otherwise we would know that little Leo Messi is holding the ladder for him.”

FULL TIME: Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal. And after three minutes of injury time, that is that. Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow. That was pretty impressive. Messi walks off with the match ball in one hand, the other waving modestly to the crowd, a shy smile creeping across his face. Is there anyone, Real Madrid fans apart, and a few Arsenal ones at the moment (but they’ll get over it), who doesn’t like this man?

But the last word must concern tonight’s true star, Bloke Who Cleans The Windows. “You know, I’ve been looking at this photo,” hums Chris Gibbons, “and I’m beginning to think that’s not the Emirates he’s cleaning at all. Why are you deceiving us like this?” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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