Lionel Messi leaves Spurs toiling on a lower plane of sporting reality
Masterclass from Barcelona’s unique talent a treat for all true football lovers
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team’s fourth goal, his second, during the Champions League win over Tottenham at Wembley. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty
Sometimes you really do just have to stand and watch – and maybe gawp a little, too. The best athletes in every sport give us a glimpse of something else, a remix of the usual physical laws.
At Wembley this sensation had an extra depth as Lionel Messi produced a hall-of-fame performance but did so in a Barcelona team who were stretched at times even as the genius at the other end was scoring twice, hitting the post twice and helping to make the other two in a 4-2 win.
More than ever, watching Barcelona felt like a game within a game, two planes of sporting reality intersecting. In the game just below the surface a team of high-class bolt-on parts and ageing links worked hard at keeping its passing and pressing game on track.
And in the other game, the one layered over the top, Messi simply took the night away from everyone else, producing irresistible moments of control and vision, and swiping the Spurs defence aside like a cobweb off a window frame.
It did not take long for Messi’s first law of physics to assert itself. This is the law that says Messi can basically make it up as he goes along. With 90 seconds gone that familiar hunched figure picked the ball up in the centre circle and spun around, the Messi sonar already picking out the location and trajectory of every object within his range.
At that moment the pass out to Jordi Alba did not really exist. There were bodies in the way. The line of sight was blocked. The pass was an idea, something scribbled on a Post-It note, talks about talks.
Messi did it anyway, hitting the ball with just enough fade to glide through the narrow target area between Philippe Coutinho and Kieran Trippier as they ran back. Trippier was almost turned inside out, wrenching his neck round, corkscrewing himself into the turf. Hugo Lloris saw it too late, rushing out in a panic, arms waggling at his sides, like a man chasing chickens across a motorway intersection.
The weight of the pass was perfect, offering Alba a half-volley inside to Coutinho, whose finish was spanked through the covering bodies. With two minutes gone a single Messi pass had left the white shirts writhing about in their own area like the dregs from the last night-bus home.
Messi’s passing has been a feature of his late-career bloom, that footballing spider-sense allowing him to freeze the movement in front of him, a snapshot within which he is free to do the most horrible things with his left foot.
Left feet like these are often described as “cultured” or “educated”. On this scale Messi’s left foot is Stephen Hawking on caffeine pills, the nine-year-old maths prodigy who wins Countdown for a year, Coleridge just after he has finished reading every book ever written and thinks, right, time to get down to some real study.
He did the other stuff, too. Messi may have lost some acceleration but he is a genuine dribbler, able to whisk the ball from foot to foot like a boxer unloading a three-punch combination. Two minutes into the second half he picked up the ball near the centre circle, glided into space, gave Lloris “the eyes” and then curled the ball against the near post.
Four minutes later he made almost the same run and hit the same post. Five minutes after that he finally made it 3-1, playing a lovely pass out to Alba, taking the return and simply placing it inside that post, hitting the ball down into the ground, a man taking pleasure in the feel of the bounce even as he killed the game.
It is hard to blame Spurs too much for any of this. How to assess this game, when one player has such a profound effect, illuminating his teammates with those divine little flashes? Spurs had come to Wembley seriously underpowered, without their best playmaker, their best midfield runner, their best midfield holder and their best defender.
Faced with opponents who could keep a €147 sub on the bench (the entire home starting XI cost €164) Spurs played well in the second half. Harry Kane pulled one back and moved with some of his old relentless energy. Erik Lamela made it 3-2 with 20 minutes to go. Perhaps in the minority report of this match Tottenham even won the game behind the game, the non-Messi edit.
But Messi still just seems to save a little of his best for English sides. These were his 21st and 22nd goals against Premier League opponents, a night where once again his passing and his touches at close quarters were surely as good as anything ever seen in this country.
Tottenham are in trouble now in Group B. The season will rush on. Barcelona will probably come unstuck at some point. But we should still treasure these moments, sparks of brilliance from a player so far ahead of everyone else it is at times tempting to take them for granted.