Two-goal Lionel Messi turned in another sparkling display as holders Barcelona marched into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League with a 4-0 victory over Stuttgart at Camp Nou on Wednesday.
Messi, 22, followed up his hat-trick against Valencia on Sunday with a brace either side of the interval to make it eight goals in his last four games, and 29 in all competitions this season, as Barça cruised to a 5-1 aggregate victory. As well as scoring twice, Messi was also the provider for Pedro's goal before substitute Bojan Krkic scored in the final minute shortly after coming on.
Barcelona are Spain's only representatives in Europe's flagship competition following the elimination of Sevilla and Real Madrid. They are also favourites to win the Champions League although no holder has ever managed to retain the trophy since its inception in 1993.
"We are playing for two important titles and the best bit comes now," said captain Carles Puyol. "We played well and are getting back to where we were."
The additional incentive for Barca is that the Champions League final is played at the Santiago Bernabeu - the home of arch-rivals Real Madrid - and there would be nothing sweeter than lifting a fourth European Cup in the Spanish capital. "We have complicated rivals to come and we shouldn't think about the final," said Barcelona president Joan Laporta.
"We will see who we get on Friday (in the draw). The French sides have shown their quality, Bayern (Munich) are on form, Inter (Milan) eliminated Chelsea and Arsenal always play good football."
For Stuttgart it was an abrupt end to their European adventure and they now return to the domestic league where they languish in ninth place in the Bundesliga. "Barcelona are strong individually and collectively and I think the elimination of Real Madrid gave them some extra motivation," said Stuttgart coach Christian Gross.
Spanish international midfielder Xavi Hernandez missed the game with a leg injury so Yaya Toure deputised in midfield with French forward Thierry Henry forcing record signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic onto the substitutes bench. Henry came up against old Arsenal team-mates Alexander Hleb, on a season loan from Barcelona, and veteran goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, now 40, with all three players in the Arsenal team that lost 2-1 against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final.
Messi was the man Stuttgart knew they had to beware, but they could only watch in awe on 13 minutes as the Argentine dribbled inside and thumped a shot past Lehmann to put Barça 2-1 up in the tie. Messi then produced a sublime pass to set up the second goal on 22 minutes finding Toure who squared the ball for Pedro to tap in his third Champions League goal of the campaign.
After the break it was more of the same as Messi tormented the opposition, again setting up Toure for a great chance on 55 minutes only for the Ivorian midfielder to shoot wide. Messi showed his team-mate how to do it four minutes later turning smartly before curling the ball into the bottom corner for his fifth goal in his last two matches and fourth in this season's Champions League.
Sergi Busquets hobbled off with a knock and Ibrahimovic came on in his place to give Stuttgart another headache at the back. Messi almost bagged another hat-trick meeting Dani Alves' cross with his head but Lehmann produced a smart save. The Germans were helpless, however, as Bojan scored a fourth in the final minute shortly after coming on as a substitute.