Messi continues to mesmerise


BARCELONA, April 7- The eulogies came cascading down after Lionel Messi's four-goal Nou Camp salvo which destroyed Arsenal in the Champions League.

At 1.69-metre Messi is no physical giant, but like fellow Argentine Diego Maradona before him, his low centre of gravity and lower body strength make him almost unplayable on current form and Tuesday’s showing made him the first player to score four times in a Champions League knockout round.

Marco Van Basten, Simone Inzaghi, Dado Prso, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Andrei Shevchenko had all performed the feat – but only in group matches.

This time, the superlatives flowed from all quarters as Messi, still just 22, went one better than his hattrick against Stuttgart to hit 39 goals for the season to book the holders a semi-final against Inter Milan.

"Messi was extraordinary and decisive," said his coach Pep Guardiola.

"He is a special player right out of the top drawer."

Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger could only look on somewhat enviously as Messi, nicknamed ‘la pulga atomica’ – the atomic flea – sent the Premier League giants home with a flea in their ear.

"They are a great team but of course they also have Messi – the first goal he scored when it seemed impossible," said Wenger.

"In the biggest games, exceptional players still make the difference. Messi is the best player in the world, and by a distance."

Barca’s honorary chairman Johan Cruyff also eulogised the Argentine in his column for El Periodico newspaper.

In Cruyff’s view what makes Messi great is that he keeps it simple – but does the simple things with panache.

"You see Messi and you think he’s doing impossible things. You seem him move, run, dribble, score and you think – he’s a genius, he does the most difficult things.

"But that’s not it. What’s great about Messi is he does very simple things. Or that he does what appears to us to be difficult simply and coolly," said the Dutch maestro, who led Barce to their first European Cup in 1992.

"Why is he the best player in the world? Because he has the ability to do difficult things without suffering, without getting in a flap.

"Leo floats around the pitch. Sometimes you think he isn’t there, that he is hiding.

"But he is there. And his opponents know it."

Not that they can do much about it.

Messi pulled Arsenal to pieces with a hattrick inside 21 minutes and a late fourth after Nicklas Bendtner had given Arsenal a shock lead.

Cruyff explained that Messi knows how to contain his energy, then seize the moment to strike like a vulture.

"Nobody at Barca wears himself out less than Leo," opined the Dutch master, adding that with each goal Messi suddenly switched into top gear and ran some 30 to 40 metres before firing home.

"He had reserved himself for those instants."

"It is true he is unstoppable once he has set off" for goal, said Arsenal’s veteran French defender Mikael Silvestre.

With usual spearhead Zlatan Ibrahimovic out injured following his two goals in London it fell to Messi to play in a more central role than usual but he was unfazed as he linked with Pedro to his right and Bojan to his left to brilliant effect.

And afterwards, match ball tucked under his arm, the flea who atomised Arsenal, had put his four-goal show mentally to bed to concentrate on the next victims – Real Madrid.

"I am very happy with this victory but we have to keep working – we have a very important match coming up" against domestic title rivals Real at the Bernabeu on Saturday.

Even a workmanlike win will do, the Argentine insists.

"The main thing is to win there – even by a single goal."

After Real, it will be Inter Milan’s turn to try to keep the flea under wraps.