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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Messi overwhelms Arsenal in second leg

LONDON (AP) Barcelona winger Lionel Messi hit four goals past Arsenal as the holders stormed into the Champions League semifinals and a meeting with Inter Milan after the Italian champions ousted CSKA Moscow on Tuesday.

While Inter's 2-0 aggregate victory over CSKA clinched a first semifinal appearance in seven years, Barcelona, a 4-1 winner thanks to the 22-year-old Messi's superb performance, is in the last four for the third consecutive season after beating Arsenal 6-3 over the two legs.

"I would have preferred to have another rival — another opponent," Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. "But this is the team we play."

Barcelona had been stunned by injury-depleted Arsenal in the 19th minute at the Nou Camp when Nicklas Bendtner gave the English Premier League title contender a 3-2 aggregate lead.

But Messi responded with a hat trick before halftime and a fourth in the closing minutes to send Barcelona through.

"I hope I can keep this up," Messi said. "I think this team is making history like we did last year. It's all in our hands."

Arsenal had started out more positively than at Emirates Stadium last week.

Arsenal's plan was to pounce on the counterattack while hoping for errors by Gabriel Milito, who was starting a European match for the first time in nearly two years.

The strategy paid off after Samir Nasri poked free from Milito and Abou Diaby released Theo Walcott, who in turn passed to Bendtner.

Although Daniel Alves managed to disrupt Bendtner's initial shot, which was stopped by goalkeeper Victor Valdes, the striker was up quickly to stab home his rebound.

Arsenal's lead was short-lived as Messi took advantage of an error by Mikael Silvestre, who played Messi's poor pass right back to him on the edge of the area. Messi continued his run before curling into the top corner in the 21st.

Messi started the move that led to Barcelona's second in the 37th. Having been fed by Messi, Eric Abidal's low cross was blocked, but only as far as Pedro, who knocked the loose ball to Messi to clip over Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

The Spanish champions were in complete control and Messi raced onto Seydou Keita's headed pass and flicked the ball again over Almunia in the 42nd to reach his hat trick.

Messi capped his spectacular performance in the 88th by shooting through Almunia's legs after his initial shot was parried to score his fourth of the night.

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