Watching the second leg of the European Champions League quarter final last night, between Barcelona and Paris St Germain. Finely poised after the first leg finished 2-2 in Paris. Two precious away goals for Barca, but Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, picked up a hamstring injury. Usually takes at least 2-3 weeks to heal, which would mean him missing the second leg. But he was on the bench…
Barca could surely overcome the loss of Messi. After all they have so many of the Spanish national team, world and European champions. The great Xavi, the controller; the magnificent Iniesta, the rapier; Fabregas, the heir apparent; Busquets, the ultimate defensive midfielder; David Villa, supreme striker, getting his form back after his broken leg; Pique, smooth centre back; Jordi Alba, rampaging left back, Pedro, understated but lethal up front; Valdes, reliable goalkeeper. Plus two Brazilians, Dani Alves, the most attacking full back in world football, and Adriano, solid utility man. Not a bad side!
PSG not so bad themselves. Some big spending having brought in players like Ibrahimovich, Lavezzi and Pastore up front. Dangerous.
I didn’t see all the first half, but it seemed like Barca were stuttering. PSG had the better of the game. And then just after half time Javier Pastore pounced. 1-0 to PSG, 3-2 on aggregate. The unthinkable looming. The commentators on Sky Sports obsessed by the absence of Messi, tantalised by the fact that he was on the bench. But how could he come on less than two weeks after a hamstring injury? What risks would be involved? Nine Spanish internationals. Xavi and Iniesta pulling the strings. What was going wrong?
Somehow the penetration wasn’t there, though we should not forget that Barcelona are a patient team. They’ll probe, pass, probe, look like they are going nowhere, and then find that gap, that opportunity, and pounce.
But it was getting worrying and they took the risk. On 62 minutes, Cesc Fabregas came off and Messi came on. And something happened to Barcelona. Immediately the energy levels seemed to go up. The pressing was more urgent, the passing sharper. Messi didn’t do that much. A few attempted runs, but PSG attention deflected onto him, and therefore less on others. On 71 minutes he took a run to the edge of the box and threaded it through to Villa. He twisted, turned, and laid it back to Pedro, who placed it into the net. A precision move and goal. 1-1.
From then on Messi did a bit of this and that, but he was clearly hamstrung. He looked stiff when he was walking, through freer when he ran. Barca settled for the 1-1, brought on defensive reinforcements. 3-3 on aggregate, through on away goals.
Messi, the talisman, the catalyst. Even in a team of absolute greats, a team whose personnel and philosophy underpinned Spain’s World Cup and European Championship victories, he stands out, galvanises. The marvel, but also a true team player. That’s why he was willing to play with a hamstring injury, to risk more time out, because Barca’s season was at stake. He is Barca through and through.
The semis promise to be mouth watering – the draw is tomorrow. Two Spanish teams, two German. The ascendant powers. England, Italy, floundering. Barca, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund. A lot of pundits fancy Bayern or Madrid. They have been the form teams. But I still think Barca are the team to beat.
And remember the way they demolished AC Milan 4-0 in the last 16 second leg. The best I’ve seen this season.
But they will need Messi to do it.