One false move and Messi shoots City down
Pellegrini’s men keep Argentinian assassin at bay until Iniesta finally springs the trap
Manchester City’s Yaya Toure (centre) tries to score past Barcelona’s goalkeeper Victor Valdes (left) during the Champions League round of 16 first leg match at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Reuters
The looming threat of Lionanel Messi was the dominant topic of conversation outside the Etihad before Mchester City’s first taste of Champions League knockout football.
“They’ve got Messi but we’ve got David Silva, and he’s just as good,” claimed one City supporter up on the giant television screen above. They say it is the hope that kills you. For City, it was the magician from Rosario, Argentina.
Messi did not deliver another dazzling European performance against Manuel Pellegrini’s dogged City side while the contributions of Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves and Xavi underlined the fact Barcelona’s golden years were not shaped by one man. And yet, and yet.
Messi ended the night on 66 goals from 83 Champions League appearances, five short of Raul’s record, and central to the defining moment of a tie that slipped from City’s grasp.
It is no coincidence that perception of one of the finest teams of all time has shifted during what, by Messi’s standards, has been a disquieting campaign on and off the pitch for the Argentina international.
There has been rare controversy in the form of a court appearance over alleged tax fraud and an unprecedented row with a Barcelona director.
Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio, made a €5 million correction payment in the tax case, with the 26-year-old distancing himself from the complicated financial affairs in his name.
He also accused the director, Javier Faus, of being “someone who doesn’t know anything about football and wants to manage Barcelona like a business, which it is not”, after the board member unwisely dismissed the genius’s qualification for a pay rise.
Sense of crisis
Faus has since taken steps to repair their relationship. That Messi should break the habit of his Barcelona lifetime and publicly condemn a director of the club generated a sense of crisis around the champions of Spain before Christmas.
More disconcerting for his club, country and the game itself with a World Cup on the horizon, were the succession of injury problems that prompted allegations of burn-out in the four-times Ballon d’Or winner.
It is remarkable, therefore, that the records have continued to crumble before Messi’s astonishing left foot, even as he works his way back to full fitness.
Saturday’s two goals against Real Vallecano brought Messi level with Real Madrid legend Raul as the third highest goalscorer in La Liga history, his 228 league goals arriving in 263 games.
Injuries have not slowed the striker’s phenomenal goal-scoring rate this season, with 13 goals in 17 league appearances so far and six in only three Champions League outings.
As he rediscovers fitness and form, so the lustre surrounding Barcelona and their prospects of winning a fifth European Cup also returns.
Messi was a slow-burning fuse at the Etihad. City’s manager Pellegrini claimed “we will not plan for individual opposition players” in his programme notes but his team’s reaction whenever the Argentinian took possession suggested otherwise.
It was credit to the work-rate, awareness and discipline of Yaya Toure and the fit-again Fernandinho that Messi received the ball in a position to turn and run at City’s back line only three times in the first half.
On each occasion he was smothered away from danger, with Vincent Kompany quickly alert to any imminent danger, Fernandinho a constant shadow and the occasionally maligned Martin Demichelis an astute presence in his favoured central-defensive position.
Kompany signalled City’s intent towards Messi with a thunderous but clean challenge on the edge of his area when the striker first broke free on to a Cesc Fabregas pass in the seventh minute.
One sublime pass from Iniesta and one lapse in concentration in the heart of the City defence was all it took for Messi to leave an indelible mark on the tie.
Barcelona’s number 10 looked more vibrant from the start of the second half and seized on Iniesta’s through-ball only to be clipped as he entered the area by Demichelis.
As his unfortunate compatriot trudged off the field with a red card, Messi picked himself up to stroke the penalty down the centre of Joe Hart’s goal and spark wild celebrations of his first goal in nine appearances at a Premier League stadium.
One moment. All he needs.