BARCELONA: Barcelona’s Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi’s extraordinary one man demolition of English side Arsenal in their Champions League quarter-final second leg here on Tuesday earned the player known as The Flea plaudits from friend and foe alike.
The 22-year-old’s first-ever four-goal haul – he had already accrued three hat-tricks in 2010 – in the 4-1 defeat of Arsenal (6-3 on aggregate) gave the Champions League holders a date with Italian champions Inter Milan in the semi-finals.
His performance left all and sundry wide eyed with admiration.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is never one for overdoing praise of players from opposing teams, but the erudite Frenchman had no hesitation at where he placed Messi in the present pantheon of top players.
“He (Messi) is the best player in the world, by a distance,” said Wenger, who had also come off second best to Barcelona in the 2006 final.
“He is not always in the game but when he is he is unstoppable. He can change direction at any time and leave his marker or defender going in the opposite direction and chasing air.”
For Barcelona president Joan Laporta there was just one term he could use for the World Player of the Year, who was the sixth player to record a quadruple in a Champions League match and the first since Andrei Shevchenko scored four for AC Milan against Fenerbahce in November 2005.
“There was an incredible genius in this match: Leo (Messi),” said Laporta.
“He finished off his chances in magisterial style.”
Barca coach Pep Guardiola, no mean player himself when he bore the Barcelona colours, paid a handsome tribute to Messi, though, he was also highly complimentary of the lesser lights of the team.
“Messi was out of this world, the difference between the two sides,” said the 39-year-old, who won the Champions League as a player with Barcelona in 1992.
“He is a special player, on a different plane to others.”
A shellshocked Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia – whose stunning saves in the first 10 minutes of the first leg in London last week had effectively kept the match alive – was equally complimentary.
“He is a brilliant player and he was fantastic in this game,” said the Spanish goalkeeper.
“As a goalkeeper you try to anticipate what he’s going to do but he can do whatever he wants and when he wants to.
“He couldn’t score in the first leg but tonight was another matter. He is the best player I have ever faced. I have a bad memory of tonight but he is the best player in the world.”
For Danish international striker Nicklas Bendtner, whose early goal proved a false dawn for Arsenal, Messi’s performance left him awestruck.
“If you lose a game, you want to lose it against a performance like that,” said Bendtner.
“Messi is a phenomenal player.”
Arsenal’s French defender Mikael Silvestre, who inadvertently created Messi’s first goal when the ball cannoned off his shin to the Argentinian, said it was virtually impossible to handle the Barcelona maestro.
“Messi is phenomenal in the way he reads the game and in his movement,” said Silvestre, who was somewhat surprisingly chosen ahead of veteran Sol Campbell to start the match.
“For his last goal, that was typical of his whole performance this evening.
“He has moments when he disappears to get a breather, which then readies him for what comes afterwards, when he has the opportunities to get into his stride. It is true he is unstoppable once he gets going on the ball.”
For Messi, though, his focus had moved on very quickly from the match.
“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.” — AFP