Barcelona (AFP) – Lionel Messi pledged at the start of the season to bring “that beautiful cup” back to the Camp Nou and on the evidence of Wednesday night, few would bet against him.
Barcelona’s 5-1 thrashing of Lyon in their Champions League last 16 second leg, a score that overlooked a nervy spell in the second half when the visitors were a goal from going through, in the end, was all about him.
Messi scored twice, including once from the penalty spot, although it was no ordinary spot-kick, instead a delightful chip that hung in the air and plopped perfectly down the middle.
There was a pair of assists too, for Gerard Pique and Ousmane Dembele, during a three-goal flurry in the final 12 minutes, with Messi leaving Lyon defenders sprawled to add a second of his own.
“Almost everything went through Messi,” said Lyon coach Bruno Genesio, whose team had held Barcelona to a 0-0 draw in the first leg. “When he is at that kind of level he is almost unstoppable. We did what we could.”
They restricted him to two goals, one short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick that had sent Juventus through and Atletico Madrid crashing out in Turin on Tuesday.
Messi paid tribute. “Cristiano had a magical night,” he said.
The talk has been of a changing of the guard, after Real Madrid’s European hegemony was ended by Ajax, and a new era, with Spain having only one side in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2010.
But Messi and Ronaldo remain constant, the former now on 108 goals in the competition, behind the latter’s imperious 124.
Each still has the power to settle a tie on their own and those most ardent in the debate about who is greater might be hoping for a Barca-Juve showdown when the draw for the quarter-finals is made on Friday.
– ‘He always surprises us’ –
“Big players like Leo and Cristiano, they give you so much,” said Pique. “Not just in results. Having Leo on your team makes you feel like you can face anything.”
Certainly, Barca will be amongst the two or three opponents that clubs will be keenest to avoid, with only Manchester City and perhaps Juve, because of Ronaldo, carrying the same sense of power and momentum.
Ernesto Valverde’s team are not without weaknesses. Their defence, as proven against Lyon, is always susceptible while teams like Real Betis, Sevilla and Levante have laid a template for success in recent months, using speed on the counter-attack.
But with a seven-point lead in La Liga, Valverde can afford to keep his players fresh while last year’s collapse against Roma in the Champions League quarter-finals should mean complacency is out of the question.
For Barcelona, domestic dominance has become the norm, meaning the Champions League is what will define their season, however unfair that assessment might be.
“From all over Spain, this team is given little credit for what we do,” said Jordi Alba on Wednesday. “The team has been consistent in all the competitions but the Champions League is decided by fine margins. We will try to do better.”
Messi perhaps feels that urge more than most and the 31-year-old, who has won the competition four times but only once since 2011, is playing like a man on a mission.
“We are all extremely focused for this competition and Leo too,” Valverde said. “He played an incredible match, extraordinary. He made assists, scored goals, won the ball back.
“We are used to him, but somehow he always surprises us.”
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