The little Argentine wizard was at his incredible best on Wednesday night as his two strikes all but propelled the Catalan outfit to yet another Champions League final
By Ewan Macdonald
It's the nature of football - perhaps of human nature - that it's far easier to focus on the negative than the positive. The ugly sticks in the mind more than does the beautiful, and that makes events at the Bernabeu on Wednesday all the more poignant.
The days - no, the hours - after this match will largely be filled with recriminations, accusations, and a near-forensic examination of the key flashpoints that led to three dismissals and no end of controversy.
Yet what truly needs to be remembered, to be savoured, was simply football. Well, maybe there wasn't so much simple about it. For while Lionel Messi might make it look easy, his contribution in Barcelona's 2-0 win over 10-man Real Madrid was the stuff of legends.
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|75'||"GOAL!!!! MESSI!!! After an incisive burst through the middle was blocked, the ball broke out to Afellay on the right hand side. The Dutchman got to the byline and centred for the Argentine to nip in at the near post and side-foot home from close range."|
|87'||"MESSI!!!! GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL!!! That's an absolutely brilliant goal from Messi, who's probably just killed the tie off with a truly memorable strike. Picking up the ball 40 yards out, he glided past two or three challenges before touching the ball by Casillas. Sheer brilliance!"|
| PLAYER RATING
|9||A double... at the home of your great rivals... in the Champions League's semi-final. The second of which is a breathtaking solo effort. A sublime showing.|
Normally Barcelona are prized more for their teamplay than their individual talents. That's not to say that they don't have players who can make the difference solo - they plainly do - but praises are sung more often for those 25-pass manoeuvres than they are a single dribble. And, of course, it's become an inevitability that the footballing world will look, smile, and shake its head at the latest possession statistic. (72% on Wednesday, since you ask.)
The first Messi goal gave a hint of it. It was, however, perhaps more of a Real Madrid-style goal than a Barcelona one. It was the the kind of swift, left-right punch of a goal that Barcelona at their most pensive can sometimes seem incapable of producing. But against a team a man down, and with the fresh legs of Ibrahim Afellay, in came the cross, and there was Messi - deployed, as usual, in the middle by Pep Guardiola - to score a striker's goal.
Thirteen minutes later the direct simplicity of what was almost a tap-in was completely and utterly forgotten. Messi's second was nothing short of sublime, and shows the third component of Barcelona's armoury: first is possession and diligent build-up; second is the occasional flash of simplistic predation; and last, but certainly not least, is individual, inspirational genius.
Madrid were, by necessity (and probably by choice) defending deep and hard when Messi came up for his second goal, but the alacrity and ease with which he dodged between the five white shirts between him and Iker Casillas made the capital side appear as ghosts, unable to interact with Messi's world. As for the finish, well, if you play in the centre of a forward line you'd better be equipped to put the ball in the back of the net, and 11 goals in 11 Champions League games suggests that there's really nobody better.
Of course context is extremely important. By the time Messi scored his wonder goal Madrid had their heads down. They were - rightly, in my view - down to 10 men, and their boss, their alpha, had been consigned to the stands, alone but for a notebook, and could offer little of the motivation for which he's so famed. These things played their part, no doubt. But Leo, only Leo, scored that second goal that, in all honesty, transcended all that was around him.
On a night when high drama and theatrics were all too plentiful, how sweet it was that the player who put on the greatest show of all did so with the ball at his feet and in the back of the net.