Barcelona hails Messi after sublime performance

Barcelona awoke on Wednesday reveling in the genius of Lionel Messi, who vowed to "keep improving" after a stunning performance on the European stage.

Messi single-handedly put the defending champion into the Champions League semifinals after scoring all of his team’s goals in a 4-1 victory over Arsenal in a quarterfinal second leg on Tuesday. Barcelona progressed 6-3 on aggregate and will play Inter Milan in the last four.

The Argentina forward is on 39 goals for the campaign, topping last season’s total by one, and will have 50 in his sights.

"I’m very happy. The same as the other day when I scored three (goals). It’s always nice to score, especially in important matches," said Messi, who became the sixth player to score four goals in a Champions League match and the first in a two-legged series.

"I have to keep on improving. I’m lucky enough to be with a group of players that care about me a lot and say nice things about me."

Messi’s recent run – he scored two hat-tricks in three games last month – has also made him the favorite to be crowned world player of the year, the award he was given last season.

"Don’t call it football, call it Messi," Barcelona-based sports daily Sport splashed across its Web site following his sublime performance.

Arsenal’s players could be forgiven for wanting to stand back and take in the performance as the 22-year-old forward cemented his standing as a great in world football.

"I believe we lost against a team that is better than us and that has the best player in the world," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "Once he’s on the run, Messi is unstoppable. He’s the only player who can change direction at such a pace."

Netherlands and Barcelona great Johan Cruyff believes Messi is the world’s best player because he has a team that is suited to his skills and because he reads the game perfectly.

"He has the capacity to do the difficult things without suffering, without distress … if you suffer, you can’t be the best in anything," Cruyff wrote in his regular column in El Periodico newspaper. "Leo floats over the field – sometimes you have the sensation he’s not even there, that he’s hiding. But he’s there and the rival knows it."

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said the secret to Messi, who has helped the Spanish champion to its third straight semifinal appearance, is his humility.

"The good thing about Messi is that tomorrow he will get up and look for the affection of his people and his teammates," Guardiola said. "I like the love he has for football and his anonymous character."

Messi’s performance has even united Spanish football fans only three days before Barcelona and Real Madrid play each other, with the league title hanging in the balance.

"The king of football," the usually Madrid-friendly sports daily Marca wrote Wednesday before spelling out a warning for Saturday’s match: "And how do we stop this guy?"