Messi-inspired Barcelona reach Champions League quarters
MADRID: Barcelona will rely on the magical skills of Lionel Messi to lead them to the Champions League final in Madrid and become the first team to defend the title since the competition's inception in 1993.
With Real Madrid and Sevilla both eliminated at the last 16 stage, Barcelona were left to fly the Spanish flag in Europe and they showed their class with a 4-0 destruction of Stuttgart on Wednesday.
It gave them a 5-1 win on aggregate and booked their place in Friday's quarter-final draw.
Messi, who scored in the Champions League final win last season, followed up his hat-trick against Valencia on Sunday by scoring twice to make it eight goals in his last four games and 29 for the season in all competitions.
"He (Messi) is in excellent form. We?ve got the best player in the world," said Brazilian teammate Dani Alves.
"He pulls the team forward, takes charge and we are the keys that help the commander work."
Messi and Barcelona will certainly be a tough draw in the last eight but coach Pep Guardiola insists his side will not get overconfident whoever they get in the next round.
"We can lose games but we never underestimate our rivals," said Guardiola. "We can't be thinking too far ahead because the Bernabeu (the home of bitter rivals Real Madrid where the final will be held) is a long way away."
Reaching the Bernabeu final on May 22 and retaining the trophy may be a dream for Barca players but it is a nightmare for Real Madrid who are hoping someone eliminates their arch rivals.
"It is always difficult talking about a competition we are not in," said Real defender Marcelo. "It is better if Barcelona are not in the final."
Previous winners Manchester United, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich provide stiff competition along with Arsenal who Barcelona defeated in the 2006 final and president Joan Laporta admits there is still a lot of hurdles still to overcome.
"We have complicated rivals to come and we shouldn't think about the final," said Laporta.
"We will see who we get Friday. The French sides have shown their quality, Bayern are on form, Inter eliminated Chelsea and Arsenal always play good football."
Barcelona are potent going forward with the creative talents of Messi, Andres Iniesta, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic but they are also solid in defence and goalkeeper Victor Valdes saluted another clean sheet against Stuttgart.
"This is another sweet night for us to savour and the fans give us a lot of confidence," said Valdes.
"One of our biggest weapons is our defence and it functioned well again tonight to ensure they didn't cause us problems."
Barcelona have one of the meanest defences in this season's Champions League conceding four goals in eight games so far.