It is getting increasingly difficult not to resort to hyperbole when describing the feats of Lionel Andrés Messi. Judgement should be withheld until the World Cup, when the 22-year-old will carry the hopes of an Argentina team handicapped by having Diego Maradona as coach. If Messi can still perform then as he does for Barcelona he truly will rank alongside Pele, Alfredo Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and Maradona himself.
Nevertheless, in the context of Arsène Wenger evoking JB Priestly and suggesting this tie would be football art, watching Barcelona's celestial No 10 slice Arsenal apart in the Nou Camp last night felt like the game's equivalent of seeing Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane, or Pablo Picasso painting Guernica. It was bewitching genius at thrilling work.
Twenty minutes in and Arsenal were, improbably, leading on the night and in the tie through Nicklas Bendtner. Then Messi took it upon himself to lift Barcelona into the Champions League semi-finals. In a glorious 21-minute spell of virtuoso brilliance, in which he scored a hat-trick, he transformed the match and took it on to another, ethereal plane. Late on, with Arsenal threatening an unlikely comeback, he stirred to add a fourth. At full strength Arsenal would have struggled to contain him, hamstrung by injuries they had no chance.
Barcelona now meet Internazionale, whom they defeated in the group stage in November following a goalless draw in Milan. No doubt Jose Mourinho will relish the chance to put Messi in a tactical straightjacket but on this form the Barça fans, who deride Mourinho as "The Translator" following his role assisting Bobby Robson when the late knight coached Barcelona, will enjoy the encounter more.
Arsenal, meanwhile, face another barren year, their fifth in succession, unless they succeed in another long-odds quest, that of lifting the Premier League title. At least they will be fresh for their next match, Wednesday's north London derby, even if most of the injured will still be absent.
Sol Campbell may be fit to face his old club but failed a pre-match test last night so another veteran, Mikaël Silvestre, came in. It was his 79th Champions League match, but only his second European start of the season – the first was as captain of a reserve XI in the "dead" group match at Olympiakos. That was also Theo Walcott's only previous start in the competition. He made the cut here because of his first-leg impact – and a lack of alternatives.
The Gunners quickly made it clear they were not going to repeat last week's mistake of standing back to admire Barcelona's passing. They rushed to close their opponents down, snapping into the tackles. However, this mainly meant conceding too many fouls, four in the first seven minutes, 10 in the opening 25. Barcelona, though not as fluent as usual, still monopolised possession and chances. There were four in the first dozen minutes, Messi laying down a marker as he went closest with a shot that Manuel Almunia turned aside at full stretch.
Yet it was Arsenal who scored first, stunning friend and foe alike. Abou Diaby, with a fierce tackle, won the ball on the halfway line and released Walcott. He raced clear before slipping a pass inside to Bendtner. It was a poor pass, behind the Dane, and under pressure from Daniel Alves he could only shoot at Victor Valdes. However, Bendtner reacted smartly to stab in the loose ball.
Two minutes later it should have been two-nil as Diaby again broke forward with Walcott in position to go clear. But Diaby hesitated, then chose the wrong option. It proved a pivotal moment. Barça subsequently fulfilled their plan to starve Walcott of opportunity leaving the stage for Messi. Operating nominally behind Bojan Krkic, but in reality appearing anywhere and everywhere, Arsenal found it impossible to contain him.
For his opening goal he drove in from the right and seemed to lose the ball. Silvestre returned it to him with a poor clearance and with Denilson slow to respond the Argentine lashed the ball past Almunia from the edge of the area.
Messi's second arrived 16 minutes later, during which time he had hit the side netting after running at a petrified Silvestre, and Denilson had been harshly booked for fouling him. This time Messi was creator and taker, releasing Eric Abidal with a sublime ball, then clipping in the cross with assistance from Pedro after Thomas Vermaelen had initially blocked it.
Five minutes later all but the Arsenal fans in the 90,000 crowd bowed down in the "We're not worthy" gesture acclaiming Messi after he ran on to Seydou Keita's header and deftly chipped Almunia. The goal completed his fourth hat-trick of 2010.
Not that Pep Guardiola, the coach, was getting carried away. Early in the second period, after Arsenal had briefly threatened, he withdrew Krkic and brought on Yaya Touré to stiffen the midfield. By then Barça had visibly eased up, seeking to conserve energy for the weekend's El Clasico with Real Madrid. Arsenal should have punished such temerity but Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky wasted chances to halve the deficit and multiply the tension.
It was, inevitably, Messi who finally killed the tie, weaving through to drive the ball, at the second attempt, between Almunia's legs. Normally when Arsenal lose their manager finds a reason: the referee, the opponents' physicality, the pitch, the fixture list or the juxtaposition of Venus. Last night he admitted Arsenal were beaten by the better team, or at least the better player.
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Dani Alves, Marquez, Milito, Abidal (Maxwell, 52); Busquets, Xavi; Pedro (Iniesta, 85), Messi, Keita; Bojan (Touré, 55). Substitutes not used: Pinto (gk), Henry, Fontas, Jeffren.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Sagna, Silvestre (Eboué, 63), Vermaelen, Clichy; Denilson, Diaby; Walcott, Nasri, Rosicky (Eduardo, 73); Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Traoré, Merida, Eastmond, Campbell.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Man-for-man marking, by Steve Tongue
Victor Valdes Unlucky with Bendtner goal after making a good save. Rest of night off 7/10
Dani Alves Bold as ever going forward, even at 3-1. Dominated Rosicky 8
Rafael Marquez Mexican captain was a daunting replacement for Gerard Pique 7
Gabriel Milito Willing and able to bring ball out of defence, complementing Marquez 7
Eric Abidal Initially found Walcott as much of a handful as Maxwell had. Lucky cross for second goal 6
Sergi Busquets Held his own to stifle Arsenal's good start, then helped out by Touré 6
Xavi Once again there were few Barcelona moves that did not involve the little midfield controller 8
Seydou Keita Unglamourous but not ineffective in left midfield. Important header forwards for third goal 6
Pedro Weak link with poor crossing and passing. One poor finish when clean through 5
Bojan Krkic Gifted teenager preferred to Thierry Henry; took some treatment 6
Lionel Messi Simply the best. Deep lying centre-forward here but how hard he worked – and how devastating he was 9
Maxwell (for Abidal, 52) 6; Touré (for Bojan, 55) 6; Iniesta (for Pedro, 85).
Manuel Almunia Fully four minutes this time before his first important save 6
Bacary Sagna Poor again, especially allowing Abidal space down his flank 5
Thomas Vermaelen Much better suited to the more physical Premier League than this sophistication 5
Mikaël Silvestre Bad night to be brought back into the side. Rusty, at fault for first goal and replaced 5
Gaël Clichy Had to take risks going forward. Flat-footed for second goal 6
Denilson Deepest of the central midfield trio and failed to restrict Messi. Booked 6
Abou Diaby Stood up well early on and sent Walcott away for goal. Industrious 7
Theo Walcott Only briefly looked capable of repeating his Emirates fireworks 6
Samir Nasri Predictably tough night against the best midfield in the world 6
Tomas Rosicky Could not threaten Alves or stop him from charging forward. Booked and replaced 4
Nicklas Bendtner Found reserve centre-halves no easier to combat than Pique or Puyol. Poor touch 6
Eboué (for Silvestre, 63). Booked. 6; Eduardo (for Rosicky, 73). Quiet 5