Magical Messi conjures four goals as weary Arsenal are slain in Spain


ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger hailed Lionel Messi as the world’s best after the Barcelona forward condemned the Gunners to a European exit with a jaw-dropping four-goal virtuoso performance.

The diminutive Argentine with the huge talent justified his billing as the finest on the planet by commandeering the quarter-final second leg after Nicklas Bendtner had given the visitors hope of a major upset.

Wenger’s team may have been weakened by absences but Messi exposed their flaws so brutally as he took his tally for the season to 39 and sent the holders into a last-four tie with Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.

It leaves Arsenal needing to regroup to keep their listing Premier League title challenge alive, while Manchester United must win tonight if the Champions League is not to be without a Premier League team for the first time since 2003.

“I believe we lost against a team that is better than us and that has the best player in the world,” said Wenger.

“Barcelona are an exceptional team with an exceptional player and in the exceptional games the exceptional players make the difference.

“I don’t know how many players in the world who could score that fourth goal. It looks impossible but he makes it possible.”

Deprived of the injured Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin, much of the visitors’ attacking threat was carried by Theo Walcott. He had triggered a comeback in the first leg and when the Gunners struck the England winger was instrumental again, outfoxing the offside trap before squaring sloppily to Bendtner, who showed persistence to jab in the rebound after Victor Valdes stopped his first effort. Most of the Camp Nou’s 98,000 crowd were stunned but Messi replied instantly, lashing into the top corner after causing mischief on the edge of the box – and then set about single-handedly unpicking the north Londoners’ threadbare defence.

He put Barca in front when Thomas Vermaelen’s interception fell to Pedro, who ushered in Messi for a close-range finish, and he took control of the tie with the goal that clinched his fourth hat-trick of 2010, darting clear of a static back line before chipping the falling Almunia with relish.

Had Bendtner shown control when the ball ricocheted to him, or Tomas Rosicky used an expanse of turf to take a touch rather than hooking a first-time shot askew, Arsenal might have set up a tense climax.

Instead Messi had the last word and applied the coup de grace, shrugging off weary challenges from Emmanuel Eboue and Vermaelen before beating Almunia from a tight angle at the second attempt.