Messi inspires Barca to knockout phase victory

However much Bayer Leverkusen frustrated Barcelona, stifling Lionel Messi proved impossible for 90 minutes.

Another inspirational display from the tireless Argentina forward, including a 38th goal of the season, put the holders on the verge of the Champions League quarterfinals following a 3-1 away victory in the first leg on Tuesday.

“He scored a really wonderful goal and was involved in many moves,” Barca coach Pep Guardiola said of Messi. “He’s continuing to show his strength which for us is vital.”

Breaking down a stubborn Leverkusen side in the round-of-16 match was the perfect riposte to domestic troubles that have resulted in Barcelona falling 10 points behind Real Madrid in Spanish league.

“When you play against the German teams you don’t have the control or possession a lot and they are physically stronger,” Guardiola said. “In the second half, we played a game that was not too interesting for us but we scored three goals and we will try to finish it in the second leg at home.”

The only other match was equally tight, with Alexandre Lacazette’s goal giving Lyon a slight edge against APOEL Nicosia, winning 1-0 at home.

Another four teams are in action on Wednesday, when AC Milan hosts Arsenal and Zenit St. Petersburg takes on Benfica.

Despite its domestic troubles, few would bet against Barcelona reaching another Champions League final or becoming the first team to defend its European title since AC Milan in 199l.

As Messi began to exert more influence, the team broke through in the 41st minute.

After spotting a rare gap in the Leverkusen midfield, Messi slipped the ball through to Sanchez, who slotted a shot past goalkeeper Bernd Leno and inside the left post.

Leverkusen defender Michal Kadlec equalised at the start of the second half by heading in Vedran Corluka’s cross, but Barcelona was back in front three minutes later.

It was Sanchez again who scored, after Cesc Fabregas initially sliced open the defence. After evading Leverkusen defender Manuel Friedrich, Sanchez rounded Leno before finishing from a tight angle.

“Alexis is putting in a lot of work and is scoring a lot,” Guardiola said. “He opens up the pitch for us and his movement is great.”

Messi was also causing the hosts more trouble with his menacing, weaving runs — and he gave his team a crucial third away goal in the 88th.

Naturally, he started the move. After setting Dani Alves free on the right, Messi darted into the penalty area to direct a pinpoint return from the Brazilian into the net to score a competition-leading seventh goal this season.

Even Leverkusen thinks there is no way back at the Camp Nou on March 7.

“The tie is finished to be honest,” Corluka said.

But don’t write off the chances just yet of APOEL, which is the first Cypriot team to reach the Champions League knockout phase.

APOEL’s defence was every bit as resilient as Leverkusen’s on Tuesday, and was unlucky to concede in the 58th minute.

Picked out by defender Cris, Alexandre Lacazette fired a powerful shot that deflected off APOEL defender Paulo Jorge to loop over goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis and under the crossbar.

“We had some good reasons to be wary of this team that gave a hard time to Porto, Shaktar (Donetsk) and Zenit (St. Petersburg),” Lyon coach Remi Garde said. “It’s a team that is very well organized and dangerous on counterattacks.” — Sapa-AP

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