It started in the third minute. When Lionel Messi tracked back almost 40 yards to win the ball back from Sergio Aguero. The very next moment saw Joleon Lescott tug Messi back at the half-way line just as the Argentine was about to explode at full pace to earn a card from the referee Syephane Lannoy. The former Everton defender was lucky thereafter as he stamped Messi inside the box but the official refused to hand the home side a spot-kick.
This was a glimpse of what was to come for the remaining 86 minutes. Ahead of the game, there was a lot of talk about how Barcelona have lost their mojo and why Messi isn’t at his best and doesn't seem to be enjoying his football as much. Those doubts were put to rest in a scintillating performance by the four-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Messi went on a signature dribble only to be robbed off the ball by Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany making a goal-line clearance in the opening quarter of the game.
Compare that to his international team-mate Aguero who had a mere five touches in the first half and was substituted during the break with a recurrence of his hamstring injury.
The post came to City’s rescue in the second half as Lescott gave the ball away to Neymar who found Messi in space. The Barcelona number 10 beat Lescott and saw his curling effort hit the upright.
On the hour mark, Messi penetrated City’s defensive line but his effort from 20 yards out crashed into the advertisement boards behind the goal.
He was soon rewarded seven minutes later as the ball wriggled out of Lescott’s feet for Messi who made no mistake with his left foot dink over Hart to put his side ahead.
City had no answer to Messi who has now scored in every Champions League tie this season with eight to his name. He was also involved in setting up his team-mates. He found Neymar in the first half whose shot was cleared off the line and later laid the ball off for Xavi whose first-time effort was palmed away for a corner by Hart. He also put it on a platter for Cesc Fabregas only for the Spaniard to be denied by a brilliant save from the City custodian.
Messi dropped deep to initiate attacks and went on mazy runs. The pressure of being Lionel Messi is that fans expect him to score in every game. Not that he doesn’t, but to doubt someone of Messi’s class is going a bit overboard.
City couldn't stop Messi
How many times have we seen players like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo respond to criticism positively? His team-mates time and again reiterated that Messi is at his best and to not raise questions on his form. Manager Gerardo Martino in his post-match address understandably said, "Sometimes criticism can provoke a reaction from the best players - they have a lot of pride."
While many suggested that it was the best time to face Barcelona following their two slip-ups in the domestic league, Martino demanded a reaction from his side.
“After two very serious slip-ups [in the league] when we didn’t play well, today we saw the Barcelona that people expect to see. We played well throughout and achieved our objective of getting through. Despite their goal I don't think the tie was ever in danger [from our perspective]. Prior to my goal we were controlling the game and could have scored before,” said Messi.
And he is right. Messi won all his duels in the first half, created at least three chances, scored one and created a couple more in the second half. By the end of the game, he had 12 dribbles to his name. Barcelona committed their first foul in the 25th minute before which City had 11.
By the half hour mark, three players who should have been careful not to pick a card were already in the book for City and would have missed the first leg of the quarter-finals had they qualified.
Of course, this Barcelona side has an Achilles Heel but with Messi in sublime form, it is hard not to count them amongst the favourites for the European title.
“When we play like that we can beat any opponent,” said Martino.
Not many would dare to doubt him.
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