By Chris Myson
When Lionel Messi is at his peak, there is still nobody in the game who comes close to him.
On the back of a difficult spell for the Argentine, his stunning individual performance in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City should finally see talk of his on-off form and injury woes put well and truly behind him.
Following Barcelona’s defeat to Real Valladolid at the weekend, Messi was – and not for the first time in 2013-14 - the target for criticism, but on another big European night he again showed how ridiculous it is to write off a player of his class.
Considering the opposition, this showing was undoubtedly the best we have seen from Messi since his cameo against Paris Saint-Germain in the last-eight of last season’s Champions League - around the time when his persistent injury problems began.
After the match, under-pressure coach Tata Martino responded to a question on Messi's display by saying he had provided the perfect response to the recent negativity. He said: "Sometimes criticism can provoke a reaction from the best players - they have a lot of pride."
The Argentine set the tone for a stunning individual performance right from the word go at Camp Nou on Wednesday night, tracking back all the way to his own penalty box to dispossess international team-mate Sergio Aguero in an early statement of intent.
It was by no means typical Messi, but following a week where he, his team-mates and coach Martino have come under intense scrutiny, he led by example.
He gave the hapless Joleon Lescott a torrid night from start to finish. After just eight minutes, his feet were too quick for the Englishman on the first of many occasions, but somehow he was denied a penalty to howls of derision from the vocal Camp Nou crowd.
Unperturbed, a classic spell-binding run resulted in Vincent Kompany having to hack a clearance off the goal-line before the Argentine was involved in a slick passing move that led to Neymar’s wrongly disallowed goal.
In barely 20 minutes, Messi was already providing a star turn.
He then set up Xavi, who forced Joe Hart into action with a sliding effort, before another magical run moments later. He turned the powerful Kompany inside out before threading a pass through to Neymar, who forced Fernandinho into City’s second goal-line clearance of the night.
After the break, Messi went from strength to strength. He immediately added another nightmare to Lescott’s upcoming volume of sleepless nights by sprinting past the defender in a 30-yard solo run that looked destined to end in a wondergoal only for the foot of the post to deny him with Hart beaten.
While City’s situation in the tie, going into the second leg two goals down, certainly helped to open up space, Messi impressively exploited it. He consistently dropped deep and embarked on devastating runs, creating multiple chances for both his team-mates and himself.
His goal mid-way through the second-half, clipping a fine finish past Hart after Lescott’s botched clearance had failed to divert Cesc Fabregas’ through-ball, capped a near-faultless display.
At only 26, Messi now has 67 Champions League goals – no other player has scored more for a single club in the competition’s history.
After the goal he set up another opportunity for Xavi and almost returned the favour by assisting Fabregas, only for Hart to get down and save well.
"Messi is capable of winning a game on his own, as he has done so many times. He can always invent something magic," admitted City assistant Ruben Cousillas in the post-match press conference.
This Barcelona team clearly has its failings. Edin Dzeko was prevented from scoring only by an outrageous Victor Valdes save and was also denied a penalty in a decision equally as bad as the spot-kick Messi was not awarded.
Their continuing set-piece frailties were again highlighted by Kompany’s late goal, before Dani Alves lifted the spirits in the final seconds by netting a last-gasp winner on the night.
But despite those repeating struggles, an in-form Messi means no side will be rejoicing if they draw Barcelona out of the hat.
He is hitting his stride at a perfect stage of the season and it is thanks to his decisive contribution that, for the seventh-straight year, Barca will be firmly in the mix during the quarter-finals.