Messi’s goals, both scored in the final 15 minutes, were well worked and well taken (particularly his second solo effort) but came only after the home side had been reduced to 10 men.
Like Manchester United, Barcelona now enter the semi-final second leg with a two-goal lead and home-ground advantage; a repeat of the 2009 Champions League final looks increasingly likely.
Reds boss Sir Alex Ferguson was in Spain to watch the game and yet a match that promised so much delivered so little actual football.
Instead, both teams kicked, dived and play-acted their way through much of the match. The first half featured more fouls than shots and, almost inevitably, ended with a melee as the teams disappeared down the tunnel. Barcelona’s substitute goalkeeper, Jose Manuel Pinto, was shown a red card for his involvement.
It was still 11 v 11 on the pitch, though. Well, at least until Madrid midfielder Pepe was sent off (somehwat controversially) for a lunge on Dani Alves after 60 minutes. Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho was then sent to the stands for protesting the decision.
Barcelona took little more than 15 minutes to make their numerical advantage count. Substitute Ibrahim Affelay beat Madrid left-back Marcello and flashed a ball across the six-yard box for Lionel Messi to meet first-time at the near post with a side-foot volley.
Then, with three minutes to play, the Argentine attacker produced a sublime bit of skill, accelerating past three defenders, driving into the box and