Lionel Messi sends Barcelona into Champions League semi-finals with four goals against Arsenal

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Lionel Messi sends Barcelona into Champions League semis with four goals against Arsenal

Arsene Wenger hailed him as the best player in the world, there’s valid debate that he may be the greatest to have ever graced a football pitch and the most frightening prospect of all: he’s only 22.

The most incredible thing about last night’s Champions League quarter-final clash between Barcelona and Arsenal was not Lionel Messi’s remarkable performance, but the fact that it didn’t even come as a surprise.

For the best part of three seasons, the Argentinian playmaker - hailed as “the new Maradona” in 2004 as he began to emerge in the Barcelona senior team – has been wowing the Nou Camp with similarly outrageous performances on a fortnightly basis.

His world-class potential was visible from a very early age. Even when Ronaldinho was in his prime and considered the best player in the world, he confessed in an interview that he wasn’t even the best player at Barcelona. “Messi is,” the Brazilian maestro humbly commented.

Arsenal’s makeshift defence simply couldn’t contend with the Barcelona No. 10 as he twisted, turned, accelerated and outwitted his tortured opponents.

When Nicklas Bendtner opened the scoring - against the run of play - on 19 minutes, it merely sparked Barcelona into action. Just as they’d done in the first half of the opening leg in London, Pep Guardiola’s men passed and moved their way around the Gunners with consummate ease, but failed to hit the back of the net.

No sooner had Arsenal taken the lead and threatened to cause an upset, though, than Messi had lashed the ball past the despairing Manuel Almunia at the opposite end of the pitch.

It was his 36th goal of the season, and the Nou Camp faithful paid respect to their footballing deity by chanting his name and bowing down. It was the only way to salute such genius. 

Messi had the bit between his teeth at this point, and was firmly in the process of silencing those uneducated critics who claimed in the build-up to this fixture that he couldn’t produce these world-class displays against English opposition.

Just 15 minutes later, the game was turned on its head by that man again. This time, two quick touches inside the box allowed him to lift the ball over Almunia with his unfavoured right foot. Goal number 37 of a quite brilliant season – Wenger and his assistant Pat Rice looked on helplessly.

Messi wasn’t about to make Wenger’s half-time team talk any easier, either. Less than five minutes before the break, the playmaker latched on to a Seydou Keita header on the halfway line, bared down on Almunia once more -his searing pace taking him away from the hapless Mikael Silvestre and co - and showed composure which defied his 22 years by lofting the ball impudently over the Arsenal goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

That glorious chip marked the majestic Messi’s fourth hat-trick of 2010 and equalled his 38-goal tally from last season. It also put him above Rivaldo as Barça’s top scorer in the history of the Champions League.

The World Player of the Year was busy smashing records left, right and centre; and had also killed the match off as a contest with this breathtakingly good 21-minute treble.

Those inside the famous Nou Camp arena had been fortunate enough to witness one of the best individual performances ever produced at this level. Sometimes teams have to admit that they were outplayed, beaten fair and square by better opposition. Wenger could do nothing but hold his hands up and confess just that after the final whistle had been blown.

Barça strolled to victory after an almost effortless second half - the likes of Xavi, Busquets and Pedro must have racked up more passes between them than the entire Arsenal team over the next 45 minutes. Wenger’s men were chasing shadows and failing to get close to arguably the best team in the long history of club football.

Messi had the final say by notching his fourth goal of the evening – his 39th of the campaign - just two minutes before the game had been brought to a close; his persistence and determination allowing him to slot the ball through Almunia’s legs and ensure Barcelona will be in that mouth-watering semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.

It may be slightly premature to suggest Messi is the best player in the history of the sport, but he’s certainly on the right path to the most prestigious label a footballer can earn.



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