Startled Gunners have no answer to Barca superstar's tour de force
THEY don't need to hold an election to find the right man for No 10 here. Lionel Messi, who wears the Barcelona No 10 shirt with such distinction, scored four goals in a performance of such majesty that comparisons with the great Diego Maradona grow in substance with each stylish showing.
Messi utterly mesmerised Arsenal's defence, carving them apart for a 21-minute hat-trick in the first half, so destroying any hope raised by Nicklas Bendtner's goal, before then finishing the game with a flourish, adding a fourth through Manuel Almunia's legs.
The Argentine's football was little short of sensational, Messi combining technique, balance, acceleration, vision and endless determination. Arsenal can point to absent friends, such as Alex Song, Robin van Persie, William Gallas, Andrei Arshavin and Cesc Fabregas but even at full strength, Arsenal could have had no answer to his brilliance.
Barcelona's progress to a semi-final with Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan deserves particular celebration as six of their starting XI were homegrown, from Victor Valdes in goal through Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Pedro and Bojan. Even coach, Pep Guardiola, grew up at the club.
Barcelona's elegant menace had been immediately apparent, Xavi inevitably setting the tempo, Messi inevitably setting the alarm bells ringing in an Arsenal defence where Mikael Silvestre struggled badly. Xavi was first to show, the Catalans' captain always willing to accept a pass whatever the pressure, displaying control and balance in the second minute to guide the ball around Abou Diaby, who promptly responded with a late challenge.
Busquets, Barcelona's anchorman, sought to get Diaby cautioned but was tersely reminded by Wolfgang Stark who was in charge. Diaby earned a warning, if fortunately no booking.
Diaby's bite at Xavi's ankles and Samir Nasri's subsequent hounding of Busquets confirmed Wenger's plan for his players to mark "more tightly'', attempting to close down Barcelona's creative types early. The problem was that the European champions have so many inventive players. Xavi was the conductor but virtuoso talents could be found everywhere -- and this was even before Messi began his triumphal march to his hat-trick.
Eric Abidal, returning at left-back, kept raiding upfield. Dani Alves was always an outlet down the right. Bojan, filling in ably for the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, offered touch and movement until removed for Yaya Toure early in the second half.
Cleverly disguising his intentions early on, Bojan suddenly delivered the ball to Pedro, whose shot sped wide. Then came Messi, seizing on Gael Clichy's loose clearance and sending a left-footed strike skimming just over Manuel Almunia's crossbar. The warning was clear, the identity of Arsenal's nemesis already obvious.
The storm was heavy and fast moving but Arsenal weathered it for a while, even taking a sensational lead with a goal on the counter that indicated Wenger had noted how Liverpool prospered here three years ago.
Snapping into tackles, shedding all the inhibition that stained their early first-leg labours, Arsenal were certainly fired up for this. At least until Messi broke their game-plan and their hearts.
For a brief, glorious period, Arsenal had hope of an almighty upset. When Xavi and Busquets attempted to work the ball across midfield, Diaby pounced, nicking the ball and immediately responding to Wenger's demand to move the ball quickly by releasing Walcott. Watched by Franco Baldini, the England international tore down the inside-right channel, rapidly entering the box and selflessly squaring for Bendtner.
The ball was slightly behind the Dane, and Dani Alves was sliding in fast, but Bendtner managed to get his shot away, bringing a save from Victor Valdes.
Having collided with the Barcelona keeper, Bendtner somehow managed to snake out his right foot and flick the ball into the net as Rafael Marquez flung himself across vainly.
Until Messi came calling, delivering those three hammer blows, Arsenal dared to dream. The 4,900 visiting supporters up in the gods were being treated to a far more mature, combative display from their idols down below.
Until Messi danced his way through Arsenal's defence, turning their dreams into nightmares.
And so came the magic, the brilliance of a little Argentine with beauty in his boots, conducting some high-speed pillaging that brought his fourth hat-trick of 2010. Lacking William Gallas, Arsenal's defence had already looked shaky, particularly Silvestre, whose poor control gifted the ball to Messi. Even then, the response from the World Player of the Year was sensational, Messi shimmying to deceive Clichy before ramming the ball past Almunia.
Walcott, commendably, sought to rally Arsenal, racing down the right, trailing danger in his wake before being crudely stopped by Busquets. For all the joy of their football, Barcelona can mix it. The artistic soon replaced the physical, Messi splashing more vibrant colour across the Nou Camp canvas.
Messi began the move for Barcelona's second, keeping possession until the overlapping Abidal was clear of Bacary Sagna. Messi then released the ball and Abidal's cross caused chaos. Thomas Vermaelen intercepted but Barcelona were too quick to the loose ball, too determined to strike. Pedro laid off for Messi, who ghosted past Silvestre and hammered past Almunia.
A penny for the thoughts of the fan at the Arsenal agm who called Silvestre "a geriatric'', incensing Wenger. However extreme that remark, Silvestre's speed of reaction has dimmed markedly from his Manchester United days and he was badly exposed by Messi.
Silvestre was not alone; Vermaelen was caught out of position when Messi completed his hat-trick. When Seydou Keita gained possession in midfield, the Malian quickly sent Messi scampering down the inside-left channel. As Denilson struggled to get back and Vermaelen floundered, Messi lifted the ball over Almunia, the applause starting with the ball still in the air.
The man with the Ballon d'Or had the match ball - and it was only half-time.
Arsenal emerged early for the second half, determined to fight against the fading of their European light and Bendtner twice enjoyed good opportunities before the hour-mark was reached. Just as Bendtner was about to shoot, he was dispossessed by Gabriel Milito, who was seeking a semi-final date with his brother, Diego, the Inter Milan striker. Then Marquez snaffled the ball after Clichy had teed up Bendtner.
So designed for attacking, Barcelona give opponents chances, a trait Mourinho will have noted, and Rosicky should have done better than shooting over midway through the second period.
As if to underline the quality available to Barcelona, Andres Iniesta then ran on before Messi glided past Emmanuel Eboue and then outran Vermaelen.
Almunia saved Messi's first effort but this perfect No 10 simply drilled the ball through Almunia's legs.
Sensational. (© Daily Telegraph, London)