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Messi's brilliance lifts Barcelona to improbable Champions League comeback

Lionel Messi produced one of the most dazzling displays of his career to lead Barcelona to a stirring Champions League comeback against AC Milan on Tuesday and created a slice of tournament history along the way.

Picking a favorite from Messi's seemingly endless feats of brilliance, which seem to happen on a weekly basis, is a fool's errand, yet there is little doubt that the importance of this contest gives it extra weight.

Barca was facing elimination after a 2-0 defeat in the first leg of its round-of-16 clash against Italian giant AC Milan, a deficit from which no team had ever recovered in the Champions League's 21 seasons of existence. Yet, with a flick of his left cleat just five minutes into the contest, Messi sent his side on their way to an inspired 4-0 victory that kept alive the club's dream of adding to its modern dynasty of three European titles in the past six years.

Messi added a second goal just before halftime to suck the life out of Milan, and the one-way traffic continued after the break. David Villa put Barca ahead on aggregate after 56 minutes, before Jordi Alba added a fourth in the dying moments.

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Lionel Messi gestures during Barca's 4-0 win over AC Milan. (AP)

Messi has occasionally struggled for the Argentina national team, but his efforts for his club side have been virtually flawless. Yet, if there was one knock on him before it was that he had often struggled to produce his brilliant best against Italian teams and their steely defensive structure. In eight previous Champions League games against Italian opposition, Messi had only scored three times, all of them from penalty kicks, leading some over-confident Milan supporters to proclaim their team had his measure from open play.

But on this night, the little Argentinean with the magic feet showed the folly of that belief – and in the theory that there could be another player on the planet to match him, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s superb season for Real Madrid.

[Related: Leo Messi scores while surrounded by half of Milan]

Ronaldo rose to the top of one arbitrary media poll this week as the world's best player, but for all his explosive excellence he remains a shade behind Messi, no question about it, mainly because the Barcelona man does things that no other players would think of, let alone execute.

For his first goal on Tuesday he was surrounded, mobbed by a posse of five Milan defenders, but it mattered not. One perfect touch drew two men away, a nudge of the ball creating the tiniest fraction of space, and that was all he needed.

A split second later the ball was in the back of the net, all before goalkeeper Christian Abbiati had any idea what was going on.

The second was a different goal but a similar story. Messi's left foot was responsible again, firing home from the edge of the penalty area as the Milan defense was once more left powerless.

A few moments earlier, M'baye Niang had Milan's best chance of the night when he charged clear on goal but struck his effort against the post. However, even if the visitors had re-established their two-goal advantage, it would have been hard to imagine them staving off the Barca juggernaut.

On this evidence it would take either bravery or foolhardiness to bet against Barca regaining its Champions League crown, and its fiercest challenge may come in the form of hated Spanish rival Madrid, and their talisman Ronaldo.

Yet Barca seems to be in the mindset of quieting the doubters right now, just like Messi is himself.

The Spanish league title is pretty much in the books for Barca and another Champions League crown would surely lead to a fifth straight world player of the year award for Messi.

With each fresh display of excellence, it becomes harder to think of what Messi could possibly do for an encore, though Barcelona will happily settle for more of the same.

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