A Genius in Full Bloom, Lionel Messi Lifts Barcelona

April 16, 2019 by Rory Smith – New York Times

BARCELONA, Spain — Still, they gasp. Still, after all this time, after all he has done, long after his brilliance should have become commonplace, after our expectations should have been adjusted and our capacity for surprise dulled, Lionel Messi can still draw the breath and dazzle the eyes and bring a crowd of nearly 100,000 to its feet.

Even when everything is in flux — when a bright, young Ajax teamcan go to Turin and beat wily old Juventus, when Cristiano Ronaldo can miss out on the Champions League semifinals, when guards seem to be changing and eras ending — a 3-0 second-leg quarterfinal victory over Manchester United featured soccer’s one great, enduring constant: Messi beaming, Barcelona winning, opponents left staring, hollow and glassy, at a genius that defies belief.

This is, at a rough estimate, the fourth iteration of Messi, the latest in a series of upgrades. It is easy to forget, given the scale of his achievements since, that the Messi who first emerged all those years ago was a winger: the Messi who was considered too small, too slight, who roamed Barcelona’s right flank, away from the monsters of the middle.

It was Pep Guardiola who took the risk, demoting two of the great strikers of their generations, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so that Messi might play centrally. It was a move so radical, so unorthodox, that a term had to be coined — or at least borrowed from Italy — to explain it. Messi’s first rebirth was as a “false 9.”

There is no easy distinction between eras, no clear and distinct cauterization, no moment when he stopped being one thing and became another. By the time he picked up his fourth and most recent Champions League trophy, in 2015, he was something else again: a striker and a schemer combined, a 9 and a 10, with Neymar to one side and Luis Suárez, his friend and neighbor, to the other.

What is remarkable is that each version has been, arguably, the finest exponent of that position in history; each and every one has been captured by a moment that confirms his mastery of that role, that suggests he had completed that particular task and was ready for something new.

Messi the winger: the goal against Getafe, in 2007, when he darted and dived around, between and at one point through five players before scoring. Messi the false 9: the header in the 2009 Champions League final, perhaps, the goal that proved he was really not a false anything. Messi the one-man attack: his second goal against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champions League semifinal, the one when, in what seemed like slow motion, Jerome Boateng collapsed onto his back, his head spinning and his feet bound by Messi’s deft brilliance.

And now we come to this Messi: the Messi that defies categorization. Looking back, it is tempting to wonder if this was always going to be his final transformation, his ultimate metamorphosis, his highest and purest form: listed as an attacker, alongside Suárez and Philippe Coutinho, but no longer hidebound by such banal ideas as fixed positions.

Messi, after sussing out Manchester United’s weaknesses, scored two goals on Tuesday.CreditSergio Perez/Reuters

Messi, after sussing out Manchester United’s weaknesses, scored two goals on Tuesday. CreditSergio Perez/Reuters

Messi, now, at 31, goes where he likes, when he likes, and Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona flexes its shape to fit in the gaps. He spends the first 10 minutes or so of every game ambling around, working out where the opposition is weakest — it took him some time against this version of Manchester United — and then stations himself in whatever position he thinks will cause most damage. His teammates make the necessary adjustments, and he gets to work.

It is impossible to know whether this Messi has already recorded one of those defining moments. Perhaps it will, in time, prove to have been that chip against Real Betis a few weeks ago, the ball floating for an age before arcing over the line. It is one of the hallmarks of Messi’s greatness that so much of it is so serene, so peaceful. There is rarely any anger to his play: more the ruthless grace of Roger Federer than the explosive strength of Rafael Nadal. He caresses his passes and strokes his shots, control always prized above power.

The other is that he does not abuse his ability: He rarely indulges himself with impossible shots from distance, seeking headlines and limelight and acclaim. His software is now sufficiently sophisticated that he can seemingly calculate the odds of any given decision: He shoots only when that is the correct decision.

His first goal here on Tuesday was a case in point. He nutmegged Fred on the edge of United’s box — not because it drew the biggest gasp from the crowd or because it showcased his genius, but because it was the simplest route to the spot, just outside the penalty area, from which he could whip the ball around David De Gea. (His second goal does not warrant such examination — a soft shot that De Gea, uncharacteristically, fumbled: Even the greats are allowed to get lucky.)

Maybe that goal will prove to be the high-water mark of this version of Messi; maybe it is still to come. He produces brilliance with such astounding frequency that only with hindsight — and a considerable amount of it, too — is certainty possible.

An example: if Messi had been able to finish off a run, late in the first half, that took him past three United midfielders, the referee Felix Brych, and left Phil Jones twisted and turned and tortured, his first goal would have seemed fairly ordinary, by his standards; so, too, if he had managed to convert an impromptu scissor kick in the second.

The question, now, is how far that brilliance can carry Barcelona. An eighth Spanish title in 11 years is nearly secure already — a run of domestic success unparalleled in the club’s history — but a first Champions League semifinal appearance since 2015 is, arguably, of greater significance.

As long as Messi, this latest Messi, is there, however, they may not matter. He can cover for a multitude of sins. He can be enough, all on his own. Those who stand in his way know that only too well. Guardiola was told, earlier this year, that his Manchester City was the favorite for the Champions League. No, he said, not at all: “Whoever has Messi, they are the favorites.”

He knows what he can do, what he continues to do, what he always does. He knows that nothing, when it comes to Messi, can be considered a surprise.

Note: A version of this article appears in print on April 17, 2019, on Page B13 of the New York edition with the headline: Genius in Full Bloom For Messi and Barcelona.

https://nyti.ms/2V8f2Iw

Messi simply on another level as Barcelona cruise to semifinals.

Miami, Fla. (Wednesday, April 17, 2019)

Going to Barcelona for a Champions League quarterfinal return leg match at the Estadio Camp Nou against Fútbol Club Barcelona was never going to be an easy task. It proved impossible for Manchester United. with Lionel Messi on a mission, Barça shredded United 3-0 on the night and 4-0 on aggregate, to advance to the semifinals of Europe’s top competition.

United had arrived at Camp Nou having lost the opening leg at home at Old Trafford 1-0; a game in which it did not have a single shot on target, and hoping for a miraculous victory like the one the club managed to pull off twenty years ago, in the Champions League final, when current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winning goal in stoppage time against Bayern Munich.

Leo had other ideas, however. In the opening leg, Messi had his nose bloodied by the arm of Chris Smalling in a collision that Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde likened to being “run over by a truck.”

There would be none of that last night. Playing at his best, his first goal was sheer Messi magic, as he ghosted past a defender and bent the ball just inside the upright. His second goal was more of a blunder by Manchester goalkeeper David de Gea, as the ball slipped underneath his body and into the net, but a goal nevertheless.

“The image (we gave) was spectacular. This is who we are,” Messi said. “I was fortunate the first went in, I struck it hard and just inside the post. I needed a little more luck on the second. The important thing is that we achieved our goal. We have taken one more step (to the title).”

Leo Messi

Barcelona faced a scare early in the match. The Red Devils looked ready to play at the outset, and Marcus Rashford barely missed scoring, with his shot hitting the crossbar. Then it was Messi time. Instead of shying away from contact, Messi initiated it with his defence to set an example for his teammates after they were caught off-guard.

Messi out-muscled Ashley Young to win the ball near the right touchline. He then brought the home crowd to its feet as he poked the ball through the legs of Fred, sped along the edge of the box, and drove a left-footed strike around a diving De Gea.

Messi got his double soon with more than a little help from De Gea, as the goalkeeper mishandled a tame shot and the ball slipped underneath him into the net.


David de Gea in disbelief after his blunder saw Lionel Messi score a second goal for Barcelona against Manchester United. Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters

Messi went close to setting up another goal just before halftime. He made Phil Jones dizzy by changing the direction of his dribble three times. He then played Jordi Alba wide, for the left back to cross the ball to Sergi Roberto arriving at the far post. De Gea made a superb save to block his point-blank effort on the line. The second half saw more Messi, as he nearly scored on an impromptu scissor kick that went slightly wide of the net.

The doblete by Messi were his ninth and tenth goals in the Champions League this season, making him the leader in that category in Champions League play this season.

Philippe Coutinho added the third goal of the soiree with a superb curling strike from long range in the 61st minute to cap arguably the best performance by the former Liverpool player since joining Barcelona just over a year ago. He celebrated that goal by placing his fingers in his ears to mock the critics who have been talking about him all season.

Messi orchestrated the attack that ended in Coutinho’s goal, playing a long ball down the left to Jordi Alba, who knocked it back to the Brazil midfielder who then beat De Gea from distance.


If you give him space and timing around the goal he will create chances and score.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

“Messi and Cristiano (Ronaldo) have been the best players in the world for the past decade,” Solskjaer said. “And he showed why we think that and why he has won so many titles. If you give him space and timing around the goal he will create chances and score.”

“We started well in the first 15 minutes and I thought, ‘We’ve got something here,'” Solskjaer said. “But then they scored twice in four minutes. … You could see the difference of the teams tonight. The quality of their finishing was absolutely outstanding.”

The goals ended Messi’s bizarre scoring drought in Champions League quarterfinals that had reached 12 matches dating back to 2013. In total “the Goat” has 45 goals in 42 games through all competitions this campaign.

Cristiano Ronaldo, however, will not be joining Leo Messi in Europe’s final four. Ajax Amsterdam stunned Ronaldo’s Juventus 2-1 to progress to the semifinals in Tuesday’s other match. Donny van de Beek equalised cancelling out Ronaldo’s opener before Matthijs de Ligt scored the winner as the Dutch visitors eliminated Juve to advance 3-2 on aggregate. A story in its own right, Ajax are in the seminfinals of the Champions League for the first time since 1997.

The fans in Barcelona, whom for so long viewed Ronaldo as the primary nemesis when he was with Real Madrid, celebrated the Ajax goals when they were announced on the video monitor.

Continue reading Messi simply on another level as Barcelona cruise to semifinals.