Two goals in three minutes from the Argentinian Lionel Messi, both superb, and Neymar burst through them to make it 3-0 as Barcelona thrash Bayern Munich in the first-leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night.
This article titled “Barcelona’s Lionel Messi steals the show to sink Bayern Munich” was written by Sid Lowe at the Camp Nou, for The Guardian on Wednesday 6th May 2015 20.59 UTC
Pep Guardiola returned to the Camp Nou and was proved right. “There is no system that can stop Leo Messi,” he had said, “and no coach, either.” Not even him. Guardiola’s night became Messi’s night yet again, his name ringing round this stadium once more, the homage in Catalonia reserved for him and all else forgotten amid the euphoria. Two goals in three minutes from the Argentinian, both superb, opened the gates to Berlin and with seconds remaining Neymar burst through them to make it 3-0.
Afterwards, Guardiola talked like a defeated man, an end-of-season feel to his discourse as he insisted he is “proud” of his players, but Luis Enrique remained cautious. He had said the tie was at 50%; now he refused to admit it had even tilted 50.1% in Barcelona’s favour. “I always failed maths,” he said, smiling, before recalling Istanbul 2005. Yet while it is true his team must pass through Munich first, they are close now.
“I hope my best night is yet to come, but this was a good night for sure,” Barcelona’s manager said. It was hugely enjoyable one; a fascinating, frantic game in which even the goalkeepers played football and pushed high, attackers as well as defenders, and one that ended with Manuel Neuer beaten three times. He had been excellent throughout, saves from Luis Suárez and Dani Alves standing out, but ultimately he could not deny Messi. Nor could poor Jérôme Boateng, turned inside out and left on the turf, his hips tied in a knot.
This was Messi’s 100th European game; he has scored 78 goals, as if goals alone define his genius. As if defining him at all is easy. “There are no words for Messi,” Marc-André ter Stegen said. “Just watch him and enjoy.”
Luis Enrique described Messi as player from “another dimension,” noting that while others watch him weekly, he has the pleasure “every day”. But he was rightly quick to highlight all his side. Ivan Rakitic and Dani Alves, particularly impressed. Nor, in fact, had Bayern performed badly, contributing to making this game so engrossing, with Xabi Alonso outstanding.
Bayern had more possession than Barcelona, only the second team to do so in 442 games and Gerard Piqué admitted that the counterattack, a new weapon this season and one whose use has been much criticised, was key here. Barcelona created chances while Bayern did not have a shot on target, reinforcing Luis Enrique’s insistence this was not all about one man, however good he had been.
That statistic is a curious one, though. This did not feel like a game so clearly dominated, nor one from which Barcelona would emerge with so significant a victory. It took until the 77th minute for the breakthrough and the sensation was rather of a contest that tilted back and forth at speed, tactics shifting, moments too. “We played well but against Barcelona, you’re always exposed,” Guardiola said. “That’s football; I’d like to offer them heartfelt congratulations.”
This match began with both teams pressing high and it was breathless, exhilarating. Barcelona and Bayern were quick to challenge for the ball, identified as a mutual objective, and quicker to go for the throat. Alves, supposedly a full-back, made more tackles on the edge of Bayern’s box than on the edge of his own, while Alonso, theoretically a deep midfielder, pressured the goalkeeper.
Beyond the front line of pressure, space opened and chances came. Lewandowski’s shot hit Piqué and then Suárez was put through – by a Messi headed flick-on, of all things. Neuer saved. Next Neymar had a shot blocked from six yards, then Lewandowski missed from five. That was to be Bayern’s only really clear chance of the evening, while more followed for Barcelona, the best when Andrés Iniesta dinked a lovely pass into the area for a hyperactive Alves to run on to. He controlled on the chest but, reaching out, couldn’t guide past Neuer.
The game was open, fast, switching between control and counters, a sense of vertigo taking hold. Guardiola rightly said it would not finish 0-0 but it took longer than expected for goals to come. Alves and Messi exchanged passes once, twice, before the Argentinian clipped a pass to Neymar running through, but the gaping space was quickly filled by Neuer. And then it happened.
Neuer released quickly, looking to attack but Alves was alert, stepping forward decisively once more. Winning yet another ball near Bayern’s goal, he nudged it through Alonso’s legs and found Messi, who dropped a shoulder and hit the ball hard and low from the edge of the area and into the net at the near post. The similarity to his goal at Wembley in 2011 was startling and so was the celebration. The chances of reaching another final, this time in Berlin, grew. Messi was off, screaming, a hint of vindication. A pile of celebrating bodies built in the corner.
Three minutes later, Barcelona scored again. Again the genesis was pressure, again Messi finished. Rakitic won it and Messi ran at Boateng, the slightest swivel of his hips enough to leave the defender tumbling, as if dizzy. Neuer approached but Messi lifted the ball over his 6ft 4in frame, right-footed. It was nearly done. When Neymar ran through in the last minute, it really was. Suárez fought for it, Messi provided it and Neymar gave a wonderful game a wonderful finish.
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