MOSCOW (Reuters) - Barcelona eased into the Champions League last 16 after record-chasing Lionel Messi fired a first-half double as the favourites rediscovered their European verve to overcome Spartak Moscow 3-0 on Tuesday.
Barcelona fullback Daniel Alves opened the scoring in the 16th minute and Messi added two more in the space of 12 minutes before halftime with his 79th and 80th goals during this calendar year.
The Spaniards, who have also secured top spot in Group G after shrugging off the 2-1 defeat at Celtic this month, controlled the tempo with their famous tiki-taka passing game on Moscow’s slick artificial turf and often picked holes in Spartak’s porous defence.
The defeat eliminated the Russians, who had only a slim chance of advancing before Tuesday’s match. Their only hope now is finishing third and earning a Europa League berth depending on the result of Benfica’s match against Celtic later on Tuesday.
“We couldn’t allow what happened at Celtic to happen again,” Messi told Spanish TV.
”We knew we had to come out strongly right from the start because it’s always tough to play away in this competition and even more so given the state of the pitch.
“Obviously the fact we didn’t concede is a boost for everyone, especially when we have been letting in too many goals recently.”
Brazil international Alves beat Spartak goalkeeper Andriy Dykan with a low blast from outside the box after the Russians failed to clear the ball following Barcelona’s build-up near the goal.
Messi doubled the lead 11 minutes later, firing into an unguarded goal with his right foot after Dykan did well to stop the initial shot by Andres Iniesta.
The Argentine wizard made it 3-0 after rounding Dykan and rolling the ball into an empty net with his left foot following a great through pass by Pedro.
While Alves scored his first goal this season, Messi is closing in on a record with 80 in 2012.
The all-time calendar year record of 85 goals set by former Germany and Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller in 1972 is in his sights.
Messi has also now netted 56 goals in Europe’s elite club competition, moving him level with Ruud van Nistelrooy into second place on the Champions League’s all-time top scorer list. Only former Real Madrid striker Raul has scored more (71).
Messi also scored twice at the Nou Camp to power the Catalan club to a comeback 3-2 win over Spartak in the group’s opening fixture two months ago.
Most of the 70,000 fans, who braved the cold to fill the Luzhniki stadium, came to see Messi and they got their money’s worth.
It was more of the same Barca show after the interval as the visitors dominated for long stretches.
Messi was denied a hat-trick late in the game when he had the goal at his mercy after rounding the keeper only for the defender to kick the ball away at the last second.
Cesc Fabregas, Andreas Iniesta and Pedro also missed good chances to add to Barca’s total.
Spartak, missing several key players with injury and suspension, including captain Sergei Parshivlyuk, Russia international Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Brazil midfielder Romulo and Ireland winger Aiden McGeady, rarely threatened Barca keeper Victor Valdes with only one shot on goal in the entire match.
Despite the home defeat, Spartak owner Leonid Fedun backed his under-fire Spanish coach Unai Emery, who has failed to beat Barcelona in 14 matches dating back to his days as coach of La Liga teams Almeria and Valencia.
“Emery has a two-year-contract and we’re going to honour it,” oil tycoon Fedun told reporters.
“What did you expect anyway? Barca are in a different league. They could only lose to themselves or in the worst case to (Real) Madrid. (At the Nou Camp) we had three chances and scored twice, this time we had four but couldn’t get a goal.” (Reporting by Gennady Fyodorov; Editing by Mark Meadows)