LA PRENSA MUNDIAL SE RINDE AL BARÇA 2
The Argentina schemer scored all four goals as Barcelona recovered from the shock of Nicklas Bendtner’s early strike to reach the Champions League semi-finals at Arsenal’s expense, but, while such an emphatic defeat in Europe usually means post-mortem time for an English club, it would take a philistine to overlook the brilliance of the little maestro, who, at the age of 22, is beginning to challenge the accepted wisdom that Pelé and Diego Maradona stand alone atop the pantheon of truly great footballers.
The quantity of Messi’s goals is incredible enough — his fourth, hammered home past a bewildered Manuel Almunia with two minutes remaining, was his 39th of a remarkable season — but it is the quality that takes the breath away.
None of his four last night was a collector’s item by his standards, but, witnessed in succession, they were testament to his myriad strengths: mesmerising footwork and close control, lovely balance, beautiful improvisation and, for someone who lacks physical stature, remarkable degrees of power and persistence.
Arsenal have players such as Cesc Fàbregas and Andrey Arshavin, regrettably absent and sorely missed here, but Messi belongs on another level entirely, as does Xavi Hernández, criminally underrated by comparison. This will be remembered as a one-man show, as opposed to the stunning team performance that Barcelona produced before frittering away a 2-0 lead in the first leg at the Emirates Stadium a week ago, but Xavi, once again, passed the ball magnificently and at a pace that Arsenal simply could not handle.
The statistics at the end showed that 95 of Xavi’s 105 passes had found their target. Samir Nasri, his closest equivalent in the Arsenal team, was successful with 20 out of 31.
In fact, the exercise has been something of an education for Arsenal. Their injury problems should be taken into consideration — no William Gallas, no Sol Campbell, no Fàbregas, no Arshavin and no Robin van Persie last night — but, in both legs, the gulf in class was vast.
To revert to the post-match statistics, Barcelona completed 509 of their 609 passes, which equates to 84 per cent. Arsenal’s figures were 239 out of 347, which is 69 per cent. This is the sort of statistical imbalance that Arsenal might expect against compliant opponents such as Burnley.
Arsenal supporters occasionally bristle at the portrayal of them as “Barcelona Lite”, but, if anything, it is a compliment and one that Wenger’s players have to prove they merit. They cannot begin to rival Barcelona’s individual flair, nor indeed their strength in defence, where their fourth-choice centre half, Mikaël Silvestre, was a weak link in a way that Rafael Márquez and Gabriel Milito were not.
This crushing defeat will have come as a blow to their self-esteem and, while they retain hopes of winning the Barclays Premier League title this season, it will go down as yet another occasion when they came up against top-class opponents and were comprehensively beaten.
Barcelona have endured some unfulfilled nights here against English opposition in recent years — Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United had, between them, come away with one win and four draws in five visits since March 2006. The key to containing them was suffocation, denying them space in which to breathe.
That was never going to be within Arsenal’s capabilities. While it is doubtful that any team can stop Messi and Co in this mood, Arsenal do not have the players, the knowhow or the philosophy to set out to spoil.
But Arsenal took the lead when Bendtner scored in the eighteenth minute. It was a goal that exposed frailties in Barcelona’s depleted defence, with Abou Diaby winning the ball in the centre circle, surging forward and releasing Theo Walcott, whose pace took him clear of the offside trap. Walcott crossed poorly to Bendtner, but the Denmark forward recovered quickly under challenges from Daniel Alves and Víctor Valdés, and impressively flicked the ball into goal.
Those had seemed to be almost the first passes that Arsenal had strung together, but if Barcelona were shocked, the response from Messi was both immediate and emphatic. His attempted pass to Pedro Rodríguez was tentatively prodded away by the ring-rusty Silvestre, prompting the World Player of the Year to lash a left-foot shot of prodigious power past Almunia from the edge of the penalty area.
It was a spectacular goal, but it was less obviously Messi-like than what was to follow before half-time. There had been a warning on the half-hour when he turned poor Silvestre inside out before shooting into the sidenetting, but then, in the 37th minute, came a wonderfully composed body swerve and clipped finish after the ball was laid back to him by Rodríguez.
Then, five minutes later, the pièce de resistance, a scooped finish after he was sent clear by Seydou Keita. In many ways it was the simplest of the three goals, given that he was one-on-one with Almunia, but it was the sheer impudence of it that drew applause even from the press box.
Messi and his team-mates could not sustain the magnificence of their first-half efforts and, for a time, Arsenal threatened a second goal that might have made life interesting. Bendtner hit a post with a header, albeit from an offside position, but, inevitably, the last word went to Messi.
With three minutes left, he skated past Emmanuel Eboué, turned away from Thomas Vermaelen and struck another shot goalwards. This time Almunia saved, but when the ball came back to Messi, he simply hammered it back again to make it 4-1.
Messi 4, Arsenal 1. Genius.