Messi’s performance for Barcelona against Bayern Munich ranks among the greatest of all time in club colours and confirmed he stands alone again when it comes to assessing the world’s best.
This article titled “” was written by Barney Ronay, for The Guardian on Thursday 7th May 2015 12.29 UTC
Perhaps the most striking thing about Lionel Messi’s second goal against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night was its gentleness. There were 80 minutes gone when Messi approached Jérôme Boateng, feigned to go inside but instead glided to his right, not so much a dribble as a kind of lullaby, leaving Boateng, Manuel Neuer and finally Rafinha lying down very gently on their backs in their own penalty area as the ball floated into the back of the net. In the space of five perfect strides Messi had effectively put the Bayern defence to sleep, lulled into a drowsy supplication at his feet by a moment of controlled gymnastic perfection. Related: Lionel Messi, Jérôme Boateng and Barcelona 3-0 Bayern: the internet reacts
“Messi is unstoppable,” Pep Guardiola shrugged at the end of Barcelona’s 3-0 first-leg victory , which sounded at first a little cute, an evasion of responsibility from a coach whose gameplan had clearly failed. Pep’s trip to the Camp Nou had ended the way Pep’s trips to the Camp Nou always used to, with an opposition coach frazzled and outmanoeuvred, eyes bulging on the touchline. On this occasion that coach happened to be Pep himself, halfway through a semi-final billed as a collision of influence between player and manager, a peeling back of the synergy between the two.
At the end of which it is tempting to conclude what some have already suggested. That Guardiola is a genius when he’s got some geniuses to genius for him. And that Messi is simply Messi, a player who is, after a slight but undeniable hiatus, once again operating to a different set of physical rules; and who has just produced something that might just rank among the all-time club football performances.
It is easy to go overboard here, to get drunk on superlatives. Just as it is also easy to become inured by repetition to the pitch of Messi’s brilliance. But this was a genuinely rare combination: a great player producing a great performance against great opposition at the vital moment in an elite competition.
Bayern were without some heavyweight players, but they remain a genuine powerhouse opponent, managed by a princeling of the modern age, and stuffed through with World Cup winners. And yet Messi’s performance in victory wasn’t simply ruthless, it was decorative too, shot through with moments of grace and beauty, the work of a 10-year club football superstar who still appears to believe that he’s playing a game rather than carrying out a tactic or executing a plan.
At the Camp Nou Messi scored two brilliant goals, made a third and at times yawned his way around champion opponents like a man tactfully avoiding a gaggle of overheated toddlers in a high street coffee shop. Often he took the ball and shimmied past two or three men, operating within a kind of fermata, events slowed and paused around him, and providing a reminder that he remains one of the great dribblers, master of the flip-flap, the surge, the amphetamine-crazed-millipede shift of feet. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi clips the ball past Manuel Neuer to score the second of his goals in the 3-0 Champions League win over Bayern Munich. Photograph: Alberto Estevez/EPA
If Messi has done this before – big game, big opponent, big performance – that shouldn’t diminish the achievement now. There is always an urge to scoff at the sensationalising of the present. But if it looks like a genius at the peak of his influence, and quacks like a genius at the peak of his influence … Well, you get the idea. What are the comparables anyway? Zinedine Zidane against Brazil in 2006 . Ronaldo against Manchester United in 2003 . Maybe even – sacrilege! – Diego Maradona against Belgium in 1986, Johan Cruyff in the 5-0 defeat of Real Madrid in 1974, or Pelé against England in 1964 (after which Jimmy Greaves observed: “Pelé is on another bloody planet.” Now: who does that remind you of?) Plus of course Messi has his own platinum-disc greatest hits, from the semi-playful evisceration of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final to his hat-trick, aged 19, for a 10-man Barcelona against Real Madrid.
This time there is another layer of significance, confirmation at the highest level of an undiminished range of influence. There is no doubt Messi had a (relative) dip last year. To this neutral observer – and this just goes to show how gloriously wrong you can be – it looked like a slight but significant decline. Messi looked to have lost, as many do after 10 years, a vital degree of snap. His hamstrings were grizzling. He looked a little heavy. The joy was still there in his feet, but the acceleration had levelled out. At the World Cup he failed to produce the crowning late-stage performance that his talent deserved. Over the year Cristiano Ronaldo looked more potent, physically more robust, a streamlined cutting edge and a deserving Ballon d’Or winner.
And yet Messi has simply surged away from everyone since the turn of the year. A hat-trick against Sevilla in November was the catalyst for a glorious renaissance from the right side of Barcelona’s attack – credit to Luis Enrique – that brought 22 goals in 15 matches and, in the middle, a performance against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium that was simply jaw-dropping: the explosive lateral movement, the passing – oh, the passing – the veering dribbles like a droplet of water fizzling about on a hot plate. Related: Pep Guardiola’s early tactical shift meets its match in Lionel Messi | Michael Cox
Against Bayern Guardiola clearly gave Barcelona too much room and would surely have benefited from a little spritz of Mourinho with the score 0-0 after 75 minutes. But the fact is Messi simply took over the key phase of the game. On 60 minutes there was a delicious, impossible little touch to Dani Alves deep in his own half, followed by a pass floated like a soap bubble above the defence that almost brought a goal for Neymar.
Guardiola could be seen waving frantically as Bayern still had eight players pushed high around the Barça box, engaged in a kind of doomed zombie-pressing, pre-programmed, unable to function any other way. Within a minute they were 1-0 down, Messi shooting with such power on his left foot that the delicacy of the second seemed all the more striking. The third goal, made by Messi and finished with frictionless grace by Neymar, came against opponents still flailing forward, intent on playing like princes even in the presence of genuine royalty.
There will be an urge to linger on the failings in Guardiola’s approach. At Barcelona the absence of a defensive strategy was often held up as a sign of vibrant competitive will, but it is easy to be cavalier when you’ve come to a knife fight armed with a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Beyond this it is tempting to conclude that the real story here is simply Messi’s re-geared genius, and a performance to rank alongside the greatest.
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