Barcelona and Chelsea took major strides towards the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday evening, sweeping to emphatic 4-0 and 3-1 wins against Bayern Munich and Liverpool respectively.
The Londoners, runners-up last season, weathered a storm after conceding an early goal at Anfield, working their way gradually back into the game and earning a comprehensive win courtesy of some textbook set-piece moves.
In the evening's other match, Barcelona exploited Bayern Munich's recent defensive frailties, racking up four first-half goals in a sublime display of incisive, possession football.
Bayern were powerless to resist the Catalans' slick offensive onslaught. The attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were a joy to behold, opening up the visitors' makeshift rearguard time and time again and reducing the harried Bayern defenders to mere bystanders.
Dominant in every department without having to exert themselves fully, the Spanish league leaders produced another typically artful performance with the peerless Messi orchestrating proceedings. After a virtually flawless opening 45 minutes, Barcelona were content to play keep-ball in the second half and deny Bayern the opportunity to reduce the deficit.
The key player
Showcasing his impudent dribbling skills and deadly finishing yet again, Messi underlined his status as the best player in the world at the moment. Making his work look easy, the Argentinian scored two and created two in another scintillating individual display. He opened his account by slipping in unnoticed behind the Bayern defence, latching on to Eto'o's pass and sliding the ball coolly past Hans Jorg Butt with his left foot; a perfect example of his unerring ability to pop up in the right place at the right time and let his exceptional skills do the rest.
The turning point
The absence of the injured Lucio and Daniel van Buyten, who missed the match to be at his ill father's bedside, forced Jurgen Klinsmann to pair Martin Demichelis with Breno at the centre of defence. The improvised partnership were chasing shadows for most of the evening, while up front the Bavarians showed little of the attacking prowess that has made them the joint top scorers in the competition with 24 goals, the same tally as Barcelona.
It all began so well for Liverpool. Making their customary fast start, the Reds pinned Chelsea back in their own half and took the lead in the sixth minute when Fernando Torres slotted home Alvaro Arbeloa's inch-perfect pass. The visitors refused to wilt, however, gradually gaining a foothold and creating two excellent chances for Didier Drogba.
But it was Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic who turned the game around, taking advantage of some passive Liverpool defending to head home twice from corner kicks either side of the break. Despite their reputation for strong second-half performances, Rafael Benitez's side were unable to stage a comeback, falling further behind when Drogba added a third from Florent Malouda's cross. With the Merseysiders unexpectedly fluffing their lines, Chelsea are odds-on favourites to advance at their expense for the second year running.
The key player
For a player appearing in only his second Champions League game, Ivanovic made quite an impression. The Serbian international, who arrived at Stamford Bridge from Lokomotiv Moscow in January 2008, scored two fine headers from corner kicks to give his side control of the tie. For the first he arrived late amid a posse of red-shirted defenders to power the ball home, and the second came when he was left unmarked to nod in from six yards out.
The turning point
In the build-up to the game Guus Hiddink announced that he had a plan for unlocking the Liverpool defence. Relegating Nicolas Anelka to the bench, the Dutchman lined up with a risky 4-3-3 formation, with two forwards in the channels either side of target man Drogba. After Torres had handed them an early lead, the 2005 champions could have been forgiven for thinking they had done the hard part. But Hiddink was rewarded for his enterprise as his side surged into a 3-1 lead and then worked tirelessly to prevent their hosts, hampered by a surprisingly subdued showing from Steven Gerrard, from getting back into the game.