James Lawton: The dismantling of Bayern confirms there is no system that can limit magic of Messi
Published 08/05/2015 | 02:30
Every so often a great sportsman crosses a line. It is the one which separates even the most thrilling and accomplished performers from those who touch the world all the way to the core.
There is something more than raw feeling, however, and also something that runs deeper than mere recognition of the highest technique and the deepest nerve.
It is understanding that in some competitors there are infinite possibilities, an unrivalled capacity to keep on re-inventing themselves.
In boxing there was Muhammad Ali. In golf, for a few matchless years, there was Tiger Woods. In football there continues to be Lionel Messi.
As the world of football pays homage yet again to the little, mesmerising Messi, as old pros murmur their awe and young boys rush into the street with a ball at their feet, the prize for most reverence for his astonishing talent, his enduring ambition, his indefatigable will, probably has to go to Italy, the nation which still prides itself on fortress defence.
Nowhere is the task of stifling creative impulses more scientifically prosecuted but after Messi's sublime destruction of Bayern Munich on Wednesday night the praise could only have been more extravagant had it come in a Papal decree.
There it was flashing across television screens from Turin all the way down to Palermo, the legend, 'Il Dio del Calcio', the 'god of football'.
Twenty-four hours earlier across the land there had been huge praise for the defensive brilliance Serie A champions Juventus had brought to the containment of the reigning masters of Europe, Real Madrid, in the first of the Champions League semi-finals but now, and once again everyone agreed, Messi had taken the world's most popular game on to another level.
The weightiest spokesman was the old maestro of the San Siro, Arrigo Sacchi, who led AC Milan to the European title in 1989 and 1990 with the help of defensive giants like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.
Sacchi, a widely acknowledged master of defensive strategy, declared to a national television audience, "Messi is unique and complete and is beyond any other dimension of the game. In his ability to change a game, to dominate everything, he reminds me of his compatriot Maradona. There is no system that can deal with such ability.
"Yes, he is separate from everything else in football. Yes, he is the god of football."
A god, maybe, but an unlikely one with the tousled, unruly hair and the quizzical expression of a teenager anxious to get things right.
That certainly was his demeanour through most of the Nou Camp action. Then, with so little time on the clock, he was in that place which even a football intellect as fine as Sacchi's was at such pains to describe. He was beyond fault, beyond doubt and all tactical restraint.
For his old boss Pep Guardiola it was the fulfilment of his deepest fears.
Before the game, he was clear that however well he marshalled his injury-buffeted Bayern, however much ground they covered, he would ultimately be at the mercy of the player who did so much to make his coaching glory at Barcelona.
Without the help of Messi, Guardiola admitted, he might just have been another young coach with a head full of ideas and problematic hopes. He just had to accept that there might be a point when his former prodigy became his destroyer.
There was and when Messi struck home his beautiful goals Guardiola retreated to his dug-out with an expression that spoke not so much of despair but resignation.
Before Neymar made it 3-0 in the last moment, Guardiola might just have fed on the hope that Bayern might overturn a two- goal advantage in Munich as they had against Porto in the quarter-finals.
He could claim that he had come to the Nou Camp without his two key men, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but of course the Portuguese did not have anyone approaching the wonder of Messi, and if Robben and Ribery were indeed grievously missed, they were still plainly lesser gods operating on a lesser planet.
As Messi regained the top position in the league table of Champions League scorers, as relatively recent speculation that he had maybe lost forever the full range of his talent felt the heat of another sunburst of ridicule, an older debate regained new life.
When it is over, when Messi, who celebrates his 28th birthday next month, finally walks away, where will he stand in the pantheon of great footballers?
In this context, Sacchi's reference to Maradona was interesting. It was so because of all coaches, Sacchi has always believed most fervently that the best organisation could indeed curb, if not subdue completely, even the most outstanding talent.
It was an argument Maradona consumed when he dominated so profoundly the 1986 World Cup in Mexico - and then delivered two Serie A titles to Napoli.
This week, Messi's presence was so overwhelming that he too seemed to stride beyond the constraints of a professionally shaped team game.
He also fired another salvo at those of us who keep faith in such ageing legends as those of Alfredo di Stefano, Pele and Johan Cruyff, who say that the ability of those great players to sublimate their sublime gifts to the needs of their teams means that they staked out ground which if challenged will never be surpassed, not even by the genius of Messi.
That argument seemed at least a little less entrenched when Messi this week opened the gates to his third Champions League final with a performance that was as utterly compelling as it was influential.
It also put into perspective the Premier League discussions about the potential of their player of the year, Eden Hazard, to make up the ground which still stretches out between his potential and the achievements of both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Zinedine Zidane, no less, speaks of the young Belgian's chances of forming a transcendent triumvirate. It is a pretty idea encouraged by the skill and the speed and the consistent application of Hazard but for a little while this week the splendid young player must have felt like someone invited to scale the Matterhorn in carpet slippers.
That Messi bestrides the pinnacle of the game for now and the foreseeable future was one of the immutable conclusions of Wednesday night.
He filled the Nou Camp with an unanswerable statement about how it is a when a great sportsman reaches down to find the very best of himself.
He was more than a star of his time.
He was a jewel of the ages.