Two of the most illuminating figures on the international soccer stage, both of them heading to the World Cup in South Africa this June, on Tuesday powered their respective teams into the semifinals of the European Champions League.
In front of an enthralled crowd of 95,000 at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, Argentine star Lionel Messi scored four goals, including a first-half hat trick, to lead defending champion FC Barcelona to a 4-1 victory over Arsenal.
In the somewhat less salubrious surroundings of Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Dutch standout Wesley Sneijder scored the only goal in front of an overwhelmingly Russian and largely disappointed crowd of 50,000 to lead Inter Milan to a 1-0 victory over CSKA Moscow.
That set up a two-game semifinal series between the reigning Spanish and Italian champions, with the first leg in Italy on April 20 and the second in Spain on April 28.
“True, it wasn’t the most exciting game, but the real prize was reaching the semifinal,” Inter Milan Coach Jose Mourinho said. “There were 500 Inter fans here in Moscow and our job was to make the semifinals, not put on a show. And that’s what we did.”
In Barcelona, it was all about putting on a show, and Messi obliged.
Arsenal had come from two goals down to tie Barcelona, 2-2, in the first game in London last week, and Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner briefly gave the Gunners some hope of scoring an upset when he put Arsenal ahead in the 18th minute.
Messi then took over, scoring three times in a 22-minute span.
First, and only three minutes after Bendtner’s goal, he bounced an intended pass off Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre and then knocked in the rebound to tie the game at 1-1. Then, in the 37th minute, he finished off a fine passing move to give Barcelona the lead.
Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia had no better luck denying Messi, the reigning FIFA world player of the year, three minutes before halftime when he dived to block the shot he thought the Argentine star would take only to see Messi scoop the ball up and over him and into the net.
Messi completed his four-goal game by bagging his 39th goal of the season two minutes from the final whistle, this time sweeping the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs after Almunia had blocked his initial shot.
When the goals stopped flowing, the superlatives started.
“He’s a player of such an incredible level,” said Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola. “There are no words — this kind of performance, you have to see it.”
“Phenomenal” said Bendtner.
“I don’t know how many players can score that goal,” Arsenal Coach Arsene Wenger said of Messi’s fourth. “It’s something that looks impossible that he makes possible.
“In exceptional games, exceptional players make the difference. If nothing happens to him, he can become unbelievable.”
Messi, 22, has scored 25 Champions League goals in all, tying the Barcelona club record held by former Brazilian legend Rivaldo.
“I’m very content, very happy with the win,” Messi said. “I think this team is making history, like we did last year. It’s all in our hands.”
It’s also in the hands of Inter Milan, which has not won Europe’s premier club competition since 1965 but is now only three games away from ending that 45-year drought.
Sneijder’s goal, on a free kick in the six minute, was enough to give Inter the win in Moscow, just as Diego Milito’s goal in the first leg in Milan had been enough for an identical 1-0 victory.
“The plan was to score before them,” Mourinho said. “In Milan, we scored on the 10th shot. Today, we scored on the first shot.”
Against Barcelona in the semifinals, Inter is more likely to find itself on the receiving end of shots, especially if Messi keeps up his incredible form.
The Champions League continues Wednesday with the last of the quarterfinals. Manchester United plays Bayern Munich in Manchester, trailing, 2-1, and Bordeaux, trailing, 3-1, plays host to Olympique Lyon in an all-French affair.
Jones reported from Los Angeles
Times wire services contributed to this report.