Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi's first-ever four goal haul saw holders Barcelona reach the UEFA Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday in a 4-1 defeat of English side Arsenal in their quarter-final second leg clash to win 6-3 on aggregate.
The 22-year-old FIFA World Player of the Year - who went into the match with three hat-tricks already in 2010 - destroyed Arsenal after Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner had briefly given the visitors hope with the opening goal. Bendtner scored on the counter-attack after 18 minutes, but then Messi stole the show with a hat-trick before half-time and a late hit two minutes before the end with Arsenal already beaten.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side had lost to Barcelona in the 2006 final, was gracious in defeat. "Congratulations to Barcelona, they were the better side," said the thoughtful Frenchman. "We lost to the better team and the best player in the world (Messi). Over the two legs we gave away cheap goals, defensively we gave them the goals when they weren't looking dangerous. But Messi when he gets the ball is unstoppable, he can change direction at any time."
Messi for his part was typically humble. "I am delighted with this victory," said Messi, whose four goals took his total to 119 for Barcelona. "However, we have to carry on our work. We have a really important match on Saturday [against Real Madrid who lead them in the title race on goal difference]. We have to win there even if it is just by one goal."
Following Arsenal's dramatic comeback to finish 2-2 in the first leg, the return at the Nou Camp was eagerly awaited and the anticipation ahead of the game was in no way dampened by the number of key players absent. Barcelona were without their central defensive pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique while in attack the scorer of their two goals at the Emirates, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was missing through injury.
Arsenal possibly had the greater cross to bear without former Barça youth product Cesc Fabregas as well Andrey Arshavin, William Gallas and Alex Song. The surprise news before kick-off was that Mikael Silvestre was chosen ahead of Sol Campbell to partner Thomas Vermaelen in defence while for Barcelona as expected Bojan Krkic was given the nod by coach Pep Guardiola to play in attack, ahead of former-Gunner hero Thierry Henry.
Arsenal took the lead in practically their first attack. Theo Walcott, such a danger for the Barcelona defence in the first-leg, burst clear down the right wing and crossed for Bendtner. While the Dane's shot was smothered at close range by keeper Victor Valdes, Bendtner was up first to slot the ball home.
The 98,000 capacity crowd was stunned into silence but they needn't have worried because in Messi they have a player with exceptional talent who rose to the occasion. Just two minutes later with the Arsenal defence failing to clear their lines, the Argentine fired the ball past the outstretched arms of Manuel Almunia.
Magical little man
Messi had moved up a gear and put Barça into the lead after 36 minutes. Having been set up 12 yards out by Pedro Rodriguez he slipped past Gael Clichy before scoring from close range. It was almost a single-handed performance as Messi latched onto a header from Seydou Keita in midfield and through on goal clipped the ball over the keeper for the third.
Guardiola brought on Yaya Toure to strengthen the midfield but their concentration on defence led to them taking their foot off the pedal. Except for a shot soon after the break, Messi faded from the game and Arsenal had the majority of the better chances and actually had themselves to blame for not getting back in the game.
Bendtner was too often the culprit with his slow movement allowing Rafa Marquez to clear on one occasion and then he hit the post with a clear header from point blank range, although he was judged off side.
As the Barça defence dozed, Tomas Rosicky too stole in but blazed over the crossbar. Messi, though, wrapped up his match winning performance by tucking the ball past Almunia from a tight angle.