Divine Messi set to provide Barca`s inspiration

London: With the unstoppable Lionel Messi in their ranks Barcelona are hardly in need of divine inspiration as the Catalans prepare to resume their Champions League challenge against Arsenal next week.

Eight of Barcelona`s squad missed out on an audience with Pope Benedict at the Vatican on Friday when a planned visit by Spain`s World Cup winners was cancelled at short notice.

They can content themselves, however, with the knowledge that Messi`s God-given talents continue to show no limits as they attempt to make up for last season`s disappointing semi-final exit at the hands of Jose Mourinho`s Inter Milan.

Barcelona might well believe this is their year to lift the European Cup for only the third time after a sensational record-breaking run of 16 consecutive victories in La Liga, although Arsenal will be taken lightly at their peril.

With reigning champions Inter and last season`s beaten finalists Bayern Munich meeting each other, at least two giants must be eliminated at this relatively early stage of the world`s most prestigious club tournament.

Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, AC Milan and debutants Tottenham Hotspur all go into the first knockout round fancying their chances with the competition as open and as exciting as ever.

The Emirates Stadium is where soccer purists will want to be on Wednesday as Arsenal try to get to grips with Barca after a 6-3 aggregate defeat to Pep Guardiola`s side in the quarter-finals last year.

Then, a gripping first leg ended 2-2 before Messi`s genius manifested itself in the second leg at the Nou Camp where the Argentine scored all four goals in a sensational 4-1 victory.

Barcelona also beat Arsenal to win the 2006 Champions League and looked on course to repeat that success last season before being outwitted by Inter who went on to beat this season`s Round of 16 opponents Bayern 2-0 in Madrid with both goals coming from Diego Milito.

However, he is out of the first leg with a thigh strain picked up in their 5-3 win over AS Roma last Sunday and is also a doubt for the second leg.

Bayern have shown they are a force to be reckoned with in the Champions League again, despite erratic Bundesliga form.

The Bavarians were commanding in the group stages, making their best start with four wins out of four to seal top spot in Group E with two games to spare.

They finished their group with 15 points, a record for a German team, having scored 16 goals, another German record.

Since the winter break and the departure of captain Mark van Bommel to AC Milan they have failed to impress in the Bundesliga with their only new signing during the transfer window, Brazilian Luiz Gustavo, struggling to adapt.

Inter`s success was masterminded by Mourinho, who then moved to Real Madrid who face Olympique Lyon in their first leg on Feb. 22. Mourinho is bidding to become the first man to lift the trophy with three clubs and will be desperate to make sure Real avoid last season`s fate when Lyon beat them at the same stage.

Real, officially Europe`s richest club for the sixth successive season, would happily trade the 359 million pounds (USD 576.1 million) they accumulated last year for the title of European champions again, something they have not done since winning their record ninth title in 2002.

They re-enter the fray on Feb. 22, the same night Chelsea travel to FC Copenhagen.

The competition re-starts on Tuesday when Milan host Tottenham at the San Siro and Valencia face Schalke.

Manchester United complete the English quartet of clubs still involved and they are likely to prove too strong against Olympique Marseille when they resume their campaign on Feb. 23.

Bureau Report

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