Holders FC Barcelona cruised into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, equalling VfB Stuttgart's record defeat in Europe thanks to two goals from the sublime Lionel Messi.
Josep Guardiola will credit the 4-0 victory to one of his team's best overall display of the season even if Messi scored in each half and helped Pedro Rodríguez register Barça's second. Yet this was a masterclass from the world's best player. Before kick-off Stuttgart coach Christian Gross was asked how to stop Messi. "Don't let him have the ball" was the sensible reply – the German side found the task impossible.
Level at 1-1 after the first leg, Stuttgart had been giving a fine account of themselves before the roof caved in. The visitors were emboldened by their ease of stringing passes together but on 13 minutes were caught on the break when one went astray. Yaya Touré galloped forward, fed Messi and the No10 did the rest, taking Zdravko Kuzmanović for a walk, then slamming a shot between two defenders and high into Jens Lehmann's top-right corner. The Camp Nou roared; Guardiola sprinted to the touch line and gave instructions to Gerard Piqué. He wanted Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets to switch touchlines, they did and the second goal arrived.
Six quick-fire passes involving the pair, plus Pedro and Messi, ended with the Argentinian international bending the ball into the path of Touré, whose pass was steered in by Pedro. This time the movement and the culmination were so thrilling that even Guardiola danced a little jig on the touch line. Just before the half-hour it could have been 3-0. Touré was relishing his unusual wide role and again broke free on the left, outstripping Stefano Celozzi and sliding a tantalising cross in front of Jens Lehmann – Thierry Henry failed to convert it by a matter of millimetres.
Messi would not be overshadowed for long, however. Stuttgart were more brusque after half-time, trying to suffocate the forward, but he soon found space. Dribbling brilliantly, he sucked in three defenders before squaring for Touré to drive narrowly wide. Messi was unstoppable. On the hour Daniel Alves flicked Pedro's pass to him and, from outside the box, he crashed in his fourth UEFA Champions League goal of the season.
His hat-trick nearly arrived courtesy of an Alves cross in the 66th minute but Messi's header, reminiscent of the one with which he sealed victory in the final against Manchester United FC last May, brought a fine save from Lehmann. The show rolled on as Zlatan Ibrahimović had a goal ruled out, the goalkeeper again had to save well, from Iniesta this time, and Messi ran half the pitch before clipping wide.
"Si, si, si, nos vamos a Madrid" the Camp Nou faithful roared – looking beyond Friday's draw for the last eight and to the final on 22 May. A great deal of work remains before that, but on this form few would doubt Barça achieving it. The holders underlined those credentials when substitutes Ibrahimović and Bojan Krkić combined for the fourth in the last minute, the Sweden striker releasing his team-mate for a right-footed finish.
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