THE greatest achievement of Lionel Messi is that he produces magic with such regularity, it becomes expected.
But at the exact same time, even the simplest of his manoeuvres leaves us in raptures.
The Argentine maestro did just that in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Chelsea to masterminded his side’s progression through to the Champions League final eight for the 11th straight season.
The night began with Barca’s fans hailing their ‘King’. It took him just 128 seconds to sink Chelsea, with a nutmegged finish from an impossible angle.
It was the fastest goal he has ever scored in his career, littered with some 600-plus strikes, and it came after just one Chelsea touch of the ball in the game – Marcos Alonso ricocheting the ball into the path of a Barca shirt in the build-up.
That was outrageous enough.
But then Messi turned provider for Ousmane Dembele’s 20th minute strike, pouncing on a Cesc Fabregas errant touch, leaving Andreas Christensen sliding desperately on the ground and leaving five Chelsea players bamboozled in the box.
He wasn’t done there.
Forget Messi’s second goal of the night, third goal across both legs – for this he took two touches to accelerate past three defenders before again humiliating Thibaut Courtois. Instead, Messi’s most symbolic moment came from one of his simplest acts.
Facing the sideline, with pressure from behind, the 30-year-old didn’t even need to touch the ball to leave Cesc Fabregas on his backside. A shimmy, a twist and a burst away was enough. It was simple, it was magical; we’ve seen things like this time and time again from the greatest player in the world yet they still never cease to amaze fans.
“Messi made the difference and, when you have the opportunity to make a great compliment to Messi, it’s right to praise a super, super, super top player,” lauded Antonio Conte after the game.
“[He’s] a player who is able to score 60 goals in every season. Not only for one season. We are talking about an extraordinary player, the best in the world.
“He’s a player who can change the final result for any team he is playing in. But he started to play with Barcelona and, for sure, he will finish his career in Barcelona. Many teams can hope to have him in their team, but it won’t be possible.
“This is a great story for Barcelona and Messi. This type of player is born once every 50 years. We are talking about one single player with this capacity, with this ability, with these skills. He’s fantastic.”
Conte, who shared words with Messi post-game, wasn’t the only person to revel in what he once again produced.
“He plays with pure clarity,” exclaimed BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand.
“When he’s running at breakneck speed, the game is still clear. For other players, more normal players, it can get fuzzy.
“When I was around the opposing team’s box and the ball came to me, I could hardly see anything. For [Messi] it’s in pure HD. That’s how he sees the game, he makes it look so easy.”
THE UK VIEW OF MESSI’S GENIUS DISPLAY
“Prior to kick-off, the sight of Messi nonchalantly pinging a practice free-kick from fully 30 yards high into the top corner of the net, with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen rooted, before trotting over to finish his warm-up, gave an indication of the task ahead for Chelsea as well as drawing admiring gasps from the Barcelona fans. As if they had not seen that before.” – Jason Burt, The Telegraph
“One of the mistakes when it comes to Messi is making it all about goals; it is not; it is everything else … The way that even if he did not go anywhere in particular, he took [defenders] with him, returning to the start point, still facing them, still on the ball and still in control, not just of himself and the ball, but of them too. Of the game.” – Sid Lowe, The Guardian
“Some of Messi’s close control and dribbling was breathtaking, drawing gasps of delight from the home crowd, and with three goals and that wondrous assist over the course of the two legs of the Chelsea tie it’s very easy to conclude that he was the difference between the teams.” – Andy West, The BBC
“Just ahead of kick-off, the locals unfurled a banner that stretched almost the length of the stand behind Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal. GOD SAVE THE KING, it read. At its centre was a picture of a triumphant Lionel Messi. What was unclear was whether he was doing the saving or being saved, god or king.” – Andy Dunn, The Mirror
“There was the pounce, the pace, the ability to effortlessly beat people and then the presence of mind and awareness to pick out a run by Ousmane Dembele that others just won’t have been able to spot. The speed alone emphasised how this was peak Messi, a sight that should be considered a privilege. The movement showed everything else about him: the vision, the technical ability, the speed, the audacity.” – Miguel Delaney, The Independent