Can you believe five years have passed since Barcelona last lifted the Champions League? I’m sure if you’d told Lionel Messi, after their 3-1 success over Juventus in 2015, that he would be forced to wait over half a decade to taste such success again, he would have suggested laying off the liquor.
In that five-year period, the Argentine superstar turned 30, supposedly hitting – and surpassing – his peak. Part of that sentence is true, at least. Now aged 33, logic dictates that time is running out for this evergreen alien.
If we are supposed to be able to spot any sign of a minuscule chink in his armour though, he is making it very hard to pick out, indeed. It’s no secret that the Barça magician holds a major obsession with winning another Champions League trophy, and la Blaugrana’s lack of progress in the competition has led to many questioning whether he must leave Camp Nou to celebrate success number five.
But Messi will not want to do so away from Barcelona. The forward has dedicated his entire career to the Catalan giants, and jumping ship to seek his own personal glory and recognition in the form of trophies would taint his image as the best player in the world – and possibly the best we have ever seen.
So, as the years tick by and Barça continue to bottle chance after glorious chance to end their mini-drought, the pressure only builds on their fragile superstars to step up to their leader’s level one final time. A tough ask.
Considering Messi delivered the most goals and assists in La Liga this season, and broke another insane number of records, it may sound churlish to say that he stepped up his own performance against Napoli.
He did, though. The winger was a man possessed in the first half, tearing Mario Rui and Kalidou Koulibaly to shreds, stamping his mark on the game with a goal, a harshly disallowed second, and then winning a penalty for Barça’s third. Each act demonstrated the various, wonderful strings to his bow.
His first goal was vintage Messi. Riding tackles, keeping the ball glued to his feet, before bending a wonderful finish into the far corner from an acute angle, all while surrounded by several opponents. His next moment of genius was torn away from him, and he’ll feel very hard done by on this one.
As the ball flew into his path on the edge of the six-yard box, everyone paused to see how he would tuck his effort away. A volley? A header? Nope. Messi waited, waited, and waited some more, playing as if time bent to his will, before chesting the ball down into his own path and rattling it home. Damn VAR.
The Argentina international then won a spot-kick through his relentless hard work and desire to succeed, as his harassing of Koulibaly led the Senegalese star into kicking straight through his adversary’s calf. Putting his body in the line of fire for his teammates.
You would think so, right?
With Barcelona, nothing is ever straight-forward anymore. As soon as the Catalan giants secured their three-goal buffer, the game flipped on its head. A lazy tackle from Ivan Rakitic brought down Dries Mertens in the box, allowing Lorenzo Insigne to bring Napoli within two.
With that one kick of a ball, Barça’s players suddenly began to remember. In the blink of an eye, the image of Kostas Manolas flicking a header into the bottom corner of the net at the Stadio Olimpico flashed through everyone’s mind.
The immortal words, ‘Corner taken quickly – Origiiii!’ assaulted the ears of each and every Blaugrana star. They had previous for this type of collapse – and their achilles heel began to rear its ugly head once more.
It has to be said, even Messi looked like he was reliving a nightmare he’d not only had to endure in every dream for the last two years, but one he’d had the displeasure of experiencing twice in reality. The number 10’s decision-making became clouded in the second half, his crisp dribbling looked slightly clunkier, and you could feel the weight and pressure shift directly onto his shoulders – as his teammates started to hide in the Camp Nou shadows.
Barça retreated, sinking deeper into their own territory and were let off when Arek Milik’s powerful header was ruled out for offside. A big moment in their Champions League journey. Had that goal have stood, we may really have seen what this Blaugrana side is made of – or not.
As it was however, the hosts held on. They rode their luck at times, but overall, it was comfortable, despite the massive drop off in their performance levels as the pressure grew. A minor sign of progress, anyway.
And with that 3-1 victory, Barcelona supporters can dream. With Real Madrid and Juventus already bowing out of the competition, the path to the final feels much more feasible. Victory over Bayern on Friday, and we can really start to believe.
Still very much the underdogs, the Catalan faithful will be cautious in their optimism. But with Messi desperate to decide his own fate, anything is possible.