It required a performance of absolute brilliance and four wonderful goals from Lionel Messi but FC Barcelona underlined their status as European champions by sweeping past Arsenal FC to advance to a semi-final against FC Internazionale Milano.
Even after falling behind to Nicklas Bendtner's early goal on the counterattack, Barça built on last week's impressive display in north London as Messi contributed a sumptuous 22-minute hat-trick and added a fourth two minutes from time. The 6-3 aggregate scoreline took the UEFA Champions League titleholders into the semi-finals for the third year in a row and will also give food for though to José Mourinho, whose Inter side now face the task of stopping the Barça juggernaut in the last four.
The visitors had started full of self-belief and intensity of purpose, unfazed by Barça's attacking arsenal. Abou Diaby combined telescopic tackling with lung-busting runs, and that earned his team their 18th-minute breakthrough. The Arsenal midfielder robbed Gabriel Milito on the halfway line, Theo Walcott sprinted down the right and passed towards Bendtner. Daniel Alves arrived in time to block and Victor Valdés pawed away the loose ball, but the Dane was up quickest to prod in.
By then it had already taken a fine fingertip save from Almunia to turn away a Messi drive. It was obvious the inspirational Argentinian wanted to appear in a third successive semi-final, and he duly took matters into his own hands. Three minutes after Bendtner's strike, Messi's attempted pass bounced back off Mickäel Silvestre so he simply crashed a left-footed drive high past Manuel Almunia from outside the box.
After the power came the finesse as the European champions started to find their passing rhythm. Eight minutes before the break that culminated in Messi sending Eric Abidal through and, though Thomas Vermaelen got a foot to the left-back's low cross, Pedro Rodríguez tapped the loose ball to Messi. One touch to take him free of a challenge and the next to dink over Almunia and Barcelona were in control.
Two become three when Arsenal were caught pushing up. Seydou Keita headed a loose ball into the path of Messi and the No10 was bearing down on Almunia again. Once more the Spanish goalkeeper was reduced to the role of helpless spectator as the 22-year-old deftly scooped the ball up and over his dive to complete his hat-trick in style.
Although Messi's play was sublime Arsenal continued to push Barcelona close to their limit, Diaby and Denilson striving to contain Xavi Hernàndez. Josep Guardiola's side lost Abidal, in his second comeback match after seven weeks out injured, Maxwell coming on, and the home coach added a tactical change with Bojan Krkić being replaced by Yaya Touré.
Arsenal would not concede defeat and although both were offside, Bendtner and Walcott hit the woodwork with efforts which showed the spirit in Arsène Wenger's team. It was their misfortune to come up against a team at their imperious best, and Messi underlined that with one last flourish in the 88th minute, rounding Vermaelen and Gaël Clichy before clipping past Almunia at the second attempt – only the sixth time a player has scored four goals in a UEFA Champions League match.