Camp Nou was the location, Chelsea the opponent and Lionel Messi the hero. As often as the last part of the sentence occurs, it never makes for tiring viewing. The Argentinian, who will soon be required to have a wand accompany him to the pitch due to the magic he often creates, contributed with two sublime finishes to lead Barcelona into the Champions League quarter-finals. And with him looking as hungry and healthy as ever, the Catalans’ chances of wrestling the holy grail of European football away from their arch-enemies in Madrid has increased tenfold.
It’s hard to bet against Messi in these types of contests, his taste for the big moments only matched by a certain Portuguese international who plies his trade in the Spanish capital. The 98,000 in attendance had barely taken to their seats, the millions watching at home hardly having switched their televisions on by the time Suarez’s deflected pass fell into the path of the waiting Messi. His slick right-footed shot squeezed through the gaping legs of Thibaut Courtois, and with just two minutes on the clock, the 30-year-old had announced his arrival into the highly-anticipated match-up.
As comfortable as the final result turned out to be for Ernesto Valverde’s side, the opening 75 minutes in the first leg at Stamford Bridge produced a much different feeling. Barca struggled to break down a stubborn Chelsea defence, inspired by their tactically astute manager Antonio Conte. The Italian’s sturdy strategies led to Italy’s dispatching of possession-devotees Spain in the 2016 European Championship, and Conte was keen to replicate the performance. The Blaugranes were bemused, unsure how to crack such a solid backline, until their saviour appeared to spare their blushes. Andres Iniesta reacted the quickest to a misplaced Andreas Christensen pass to set up the oncoming Messi for a simple but effective finish. Barca had grabbed the all-important away goal, and there wasn’t much surprise with who attained it.
The second leg was always going to be more open for Messi and Co., with Chelsea at some point required to push forward in the hope of snatching an away goal of their own. That would leave space for the Barcelona forwards to enjoy the attacking freedom they crave, a pleasant change from the suffocation they suffered at the Bridge three weeks ago. No-one could have guessed they would receive such an opportunity in the opening minutes, however. Messi’s goal didn’t change much in terms of what Chelsea had to do in order to level the scores on the night, but letting them know he was prepared for battle will have certainly affected the opposition.
The English side actually played well, holding much more possession than expected and often creating several half-chances as Barca happily sat back, inviting pressure while they awaited another Chelsea error. That mistake came soon after, as a loose Cesc Fabregas pass was picked up by Messi, his presence garnering a level of attention that allowed for a slick pass to the unmarked Ousmane Dembele on the edge of the area. The former Borussia Dortmund man rifled his effort into the top corner, leaving Chelsea with a mountain to climb. Barcelona were in a comfortable position heading into half-time, and they had their iconic No.10 to thank for such a luxury.
The second half contained many desperate Chelsea attacks, searching for a goal that would have made Barca sweat over their lead. Had they been successful, the tie would certainly have opened up, the nerves in the Camp Nou swelling up with flashbacks of 2012. However, before such a scenario could happen, an Antonio Rudiger mishit pass, followed by poor Christensen defending, opened up space for Messi to fire home his second of the night, once again at the expense of Courtois. It was a carbon copy of the opening goal, as Messi absorbed the plaudits of the Camp Nou during the celebrations. His two magic moments this time around, combined with the left-footed finish in London three weeks prior, had been the difference, acknowledged as much by Conte during his post-game embrace. Conte’s a passionate character, no doubt left disappointed by his team’s early exit at this stage of a competition which still eludes him. But even he found the time to admire the greatness he had just witnessed.
Barca played well defensively, awaiting individual errors to create momentum offensively, as they felt safe with the lead they held heading into the contest. Valverde set his side up to be organised in their half of the pitch, and punishable on the opponents’ side. It proved a successful strategy, and one which makes the Liga champions-elect appear as one of the legitimate favourites for Europe’s premier competition.
Yet, there’s no denying that Messi places this team on a whole other pedestal. That, of course, is stating the obvious. However, the more he does it, the more it becomes apparent, and the constant moments of wizardry he provides Barca with offers them the capability of beating any side they meet from here on out. You’d think we’d have gotten used his brilliant performances by now.