FC Barcelona enjoyed a comfortable 4-0 victory against the Czech Republic side Viktoria Plzeň. The win, combined with AC Milan's one all draw with BATE Borisov means Barça have officially qualified for the Round of 16 of the Champions League.
Once again Pep Guardiola, who managed his 200th Blaugrana game, rested Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but this time he also left Javier Mascherano and David Villa out of the starting 11. For the third consecutive game Isaac Cuenca started the match and found himself on the right wing, while Adriano Correia maned the other side. There were no surprises by the hosts because manager Pavel Vrba made just one change from the match two weeks ago as he replaced injured goalkeeper Marek Cech with Roman Pavlik.
Viktoria started the match very aggressively and it was clear the Czech champions will be doing everything in their power to make Barcelona's life difficult. But even though they had to cope with an aggressive opponent, Barcelona from minute to minute enjoyed more possession and created many chances. Twelve minutes in, Cesc Fabregas got clipped in the penalty box, but no penalty was awarded. Replays showed Petr Jiracek made contact with Cesc which resulted in the midfielder falling down. The referee's view of the incident was blocked, but the 5th official was just a few feet away, but he deemed the foul was not worthy of a penalty shot.
However, Barca was still susceptible to counters, but while most of them were handled by the Barcelona backline, in the 17th minute Milan Petrzela got clear of the defense and was one-on-one with Victor Valdes. Petrzela fired a low shot, but Valdes was able to get his left hand on it and the danger was cleared by Eric Abidal.
The turning point of the match came in the 22nd minute. Barcelona were awarded a penalty kick after Marian Cisovsky brought down Lionel Messi in the box. For that offense the Viktoria defender received a red card. There is no question that it was a clear penalty and the referee made the right decision there, but the red card was harsh. Messi stepped up and calmly sent the ball to his left while goalkeeper Pavlik went the opposite way. Barcelona up 1-0 as Messi scored his 200th professional goal.
Vrba was forced to make a substitution to fill the void left in defense by Cisovsky, so he replaced striker Marek Bakos with defender Frantisek Sevinsky. Messi continued to be an attacking force and a constant thread to score, but his strong shot from outside of the box was parried well by Pavlik.
In the 38th minute Victor Valdes broke Miguel Reina's unbeaten record of 824 minutes, set in the 1972-73 season. Valdes went on to extend that streak to 877 minutes as he kept the opposition from scoring in the 9th consecutive match.
Barcelona doubled the lead in the second minute of added time in the first half. After a long build-up led to Messi playing a one-two with Adriano Correia, Messi found himself unguarded in the middle of the penalty box. From there the Argentine made no mistake and fired Barcelona to a deserving 2 goal advantage going into halftime.
After the restart Barca made it look very easy as after five one-touch passes Cesc was one-on-one with Pavlik and the midfielder tried a delicate chip over the keeper. The chip which was successful, but the ball sailed wide of the net.
Just a few minutes later Daniel Alves made his manager very unhappy as he (unnecessarily) made a cynical foul which got him a yellow card. A yellow card that results in the right-back's suspension in the next Champions League match, against AC Milan.
Messi was everywhere in this game and every time he controlled the ball 30 yards from Pavlik's goal there was potential for a goal. In one of his many plays he won a free kick 25 yards out which he superbly took himself, but the shot was fantastically saved and punched out for a corner kick by Pavlik, who, it has to be said, had a very good game. Messi sent the resulting corner inside the box where Thiago timed his jump perfectly and fired on net, but his attempt was comfortably saved.
Barcelona continued to control the ball, but there was no urgency to extend the lead. Viktoria was forced to live without the ball, but despite just approximately 30% possession they were able to threaten on counters. Their best opportunity in the second half to end Valdes' unbeaten run again came courtesy of Petrzela, but the winger fired just inches wide of the post. From the very next Barcelona attack Thiago connected with Messi's cross and hit the crossbar. Just minutes later, at the 72 minute mark, Cuenca sent a perfect high cross from the right side to Fabregas who from five yards out buried the header to extend the lead.
With the game out of reach Pep was able to rest some of his most used player as both Alves and Eric Abidal received some well earned time off. One of the players that entered the pitch was welcomed by fans everywhere as Alexis Sanchez made his much anticipated return from a hamstring injury. In the remainder of the game Alexis was very involved in attack and even had a chance to get on the scoreboard. Overall, a very encouraging return by the Chile forward.
Messi completed the scoring in the 92nd minute. After an unlucky bounce of a defender the ball came to Gerard Pique who brilliantly set up Messi with a backheel pass and the Ballon d'Or favourite fired it home for a hat-trick. In the game of milestones, this goal was also one as this was the 500th goal scored since Pep Guardiola took over as manager of FC Barcelona.
Isaac Cuenca was again very lively on the wing and the youngster was able to send numerous quality crosses inside the area. Not all of them found a Barcelona player, but nonetheless this was another very promising performance from Cuenca, who also had a mesmerising run down the right wing that led to a scoring chance.
My man of the match vote goes to Lionel Messi, who for the first time in his career scored a hat-trick in consecutive matches.