Not quite a one-man team as Xavi plays best supporting act to the hero

Barça's Mr Reliable holds misfiring midfield together and enables Messi to shine

Barcelona'sworst fears were confirmed, but so were Arsenal's – Pep Guardiola's second-string centre-halves made a nervous start, but an awesome Leo Messi had the game wrapped up by half-time.

Only Barça's genial No 10 and midfield maestro Xavi were at their best in the first half but that was more than enough against an Arsenal side unable to take advantage of the weaknesses in the hosts' rearguard.

In the absence of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, Guardiola was forced to pair two defenders who had not played alongside each other in such an important match since the 2008 Champions League semi-final against Manchester United, and it showed. Gabi Milito and Rafa Marquez were like strangers in the night and there were 12 minutes on the clock before Milito played a pass out of defence that did not go to a white shirt.

The Argentine injured cruciate ligaments in his right knee in that game against United and missed a year and a half of football. He had started five of Barcelona's last nine games before last night.

His central defensive partner Marquez had played just 17 minutes in that time and the pair were torn apart when Milito lost out to Abou Diaby in midfield and Theo Walcott raced clear to set up Nicklas Bendtner for the opening goal.

Not only did Barça look shaky going backwards, they looked positively sidewards coming forward.

Arsène Wenger spoke of an opportunity lost when he said afterwards: "I think we had the chance to score the second goal but Messi is a player who can take advantage of your mistakes at any moment. If we had taken every chance then we would have done it. Before they levelled we had a great chance to score again but we made a bad decision with the final ball."

Almunia was a spectator early on as four of Milito's first five passes went astray and the careless distribution was contagious with the usually comfortable Eric Abidal losing possession at every opportunity.

But it mattered not because at the other end of the pitch was the world's greatest footballer. Messi's 21-minute hat-trick woke his team up and knocked Arsenal clean out, the striker adding a fourth in the second half. He now has 39 goals in all competitions.

The debate over whether Messi is as good as Diego Maradona hangs on the few things that Maradona did that Messi is unable to do – lead his team being the most obvious.

Messi is as shy as Maradona was brash and he has never looked Barcelona captain material, until last night. Barcelona supporters were nervous in the lead-up to the game and those first 15 minutes did nothing to ease the nerves, but Messi answered the call and his brilliance covered a multitude of defensive sins.

Guardiola had, as expected, left Thierry Henry out of his starting line-up choosing 19-year-old Bojan Krkic instead but the Catalan youngster made a nervous start and was unable to take advantage of an Arsenal side missing Alexander Song, William Gallas and Sol Campbell.

Young Canary Islands winger Pedro was also out of sorts playing the biggest game of his career so far.

Pedro had Xavi shouting in his ear in that nervous first half as the captain fought a lone battle in midfield for the home side. Alongside him was Sergio Busquets, another Barça youngster freezing on the big night.

Seydou Keita, the third man in Barça's midfield trio, was also below par and with Abidal having his worst 45 minutes of the season, Barça looked a shadow of the side that has been so dominant at the Nou Camp.

Xavi's contribution should not be underestimated. The fulcrum of Barcelona's triumphant charge to the trophy last season has missed his partner-in-crime, Andres Iniesta, in recent weeks. The pair have a telepathic understanding but Iniesta started on the bench. Xavi was carrying an extra weight but with Messi in support he did not buckle.

Xavi and Messi saved not only their team-mates but the coach who looked to have got his team selection wrong after Arsenal's goal went in. The decision to leave out Yaya Touré had robbed Barcelona of a player who would have been capable of coming out from the back with the ball. Guardiola finally brought on Touré after half-time and took off the ineffective Bojan but by then the result was all but decided. Messi had lifted everyone... even Milito and Marquez.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?