Monday 19 February 2018

Messi inspire's Barca's late, late show

Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0

Lionel Messi beats Manuel Neuer to score Barcelona’s second goal in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Nou Camp last night
Lionel Messi beats Manuel Neuer to score Barcelona’s second goal in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Nou Camp last night
Lionel Messi watches the ball cross the line as Rafinha tries in vain to clear at the Nou Camp last night
Barcelona's Neymar celebrates after scoring their third goal
Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola looks dejected, as Barcelona players celebrate their 3-0 victory at the Nou Camp last night
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring

Henry Winter

Pep Guardiola was right, Lionel Messi is "unstoppable". Guardiola's homecoming to the Camp Nou proved a deeply painful one and his nemesis was a deeply familiar one.

Just after Bayern Munich had posted a tweet about "Neuer the wall'', Messi beat the keeper with two good strikes, the second an absolute gem, the ball lifted over Neuer after Jerome Boateng had been left closely surveying the turf.

Helped by Messi, Neymar then added a third, deepening Guardiola's woe.

It took something special to beat a keeper as good as Neuer, and break down a team as well organised as Guardiola's Bayern.

Great players do great things; they change games, writing headlines and history. Guardiola will need all his own revered powers to turn this around next week.

Guardiola had stepped from the Bayern bus two hours before kick-off, jacket slung casually over his right shoulder but otherwise looking a picture of solemnity as he re-entered the house of a thousand memories.


Walking close to Guardiola was his keeper, Manuel Neuer, who was to have such an influence on the game until Messi turned on the style with 13 minutes remaining, wrecking Guardiola's homecoming.

Leaving the bus, every step took him deeper in the heart of his old home, a place where he had been ball boy, player, coach, messiah and always, always a supporter. The man who once made Barcelona dream and who twice led the team to Champions League glory, Guardiola was home and yet away here, turning right out of the tunnel into the unfamiliar territory of the visitors' dugout.

Nearby some Barcelona fans waved a banner that read "Thank you, Pep, eternal thanks". Luis Enrique soon strode across to embrace him, a personal moment captured by 60 or more photographers.

Then emotion had to be placed to one side. Sentiment had to ignored. Barcelona are in Guardiola's heart but Bayern are in his head, and Guardiola had to try to devise a plan to negate Messi, a player he had called "unstoppable", Luis Suárez and Neymar. The trio has aroused such admiration, plundering more than 100 goals, that the esteemed French publication, L'Equipe, has been canvassing opinion as to whether this was the greatest club attack in history, one to rival even the Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskas and Gento of Real Madrid. Not yet has to be the conclusion.

In an attempt to combat Messi, Guardiola initially lined up with a back three, including Rafinha on the left working with the wing-back Juan Bernat on patrolling one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. It was a mission accompanied by a "good luck" message. Messi promptly dribbled past the pair of them, then weaving past Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Over on the right, Medhi Benatia had to contend with Neymar for almost 20 minutes while Suárez was soon scaring Jérôme Boateng. The Bayern centre-back then laid a hand on Suárez, who fell to earth and a penalty could easily have been awarded. Suárez could have had a hat-trick early on.

Released by Messi, the Uruguayan's shot was saved by Neuer, who then made an astonishing save from Suárez. Running on to Messi's header, Suárez seemed sure to score but he was bearing down on the indomitable Neuer, who stood his ground, spread his limbs and saved with his right knee. Typical Neuer.

Bayern were staring into a storm. Alonso stayed calm, working tirelessly with Philipp Lahm in seeking to close down all those Catalan fireflies coming their way. Yet the first half was evenly balanced in terms of possession, Barcelona shading it with 52 per cent.

Guardiola could not park the bus, he could not even park a limo; caution is anathema to him. He had come hunting an away goal, fielding two strikers, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller with Schweinsteiger and frequently Thiago Alcântara supporting. Bayern should have scored after 17 minutes when Lewandowski sent Müller down the inside-right channel, and the German World Cup winner brushed aside Jordi Alba before squaring the ball back.

Lewandowski had continued his run, and the ball arrived invitingly but he failed to make sufficient contact and the moment was lost, much to Guardiola's frustration.

Guardiola's old gem, Messi, continued to worry his new team. One piece of skill wrong-footed Bernat. Another deceived even Alonso.

Sensing the pressure, Guardiola switched to a back-four after 18 minutes. Rafinha went to the right, Bernat dropped deep to take on Messi watch while Benatia partnered Boateng in the centre. They looked more secure.

Alonso was almost a supplementary defender at times, tracking back to help out, occasionally with excessive vigour. To the delight of the locals, the former Real Madrid midfielder was soon booked for a foul on Messi.

The Italian referee, Nicola Rizzola, indicated it was a totting-up measure, holding up three fingers to Alonso.

Rizzola added to the occasion, letting the game flow, and waving away Suárez's protestations after a legitimate Benatia challenge.

Few scoreless halves can have been as entertaining as this. This was the application of enhanced technique at considerable speed, often in the tightest of situations.

Ivan Rakitic was helping drive Barcelona forward, also contributing from a set-piece, a corner which Suárez headed over. With six minutes of the half remaining, Andrés Iniesta dinked the ball in to Dani Alves, whose shot was saved by Neuer, almost inevitably.

The game continued to mesmerise, and Neuer continued to impress until Messi took over. Guardiola's reversion to 4-4-2 was proving problematic for Enrique to solve until Messi dominated. The Bayern fans up in the Gods could briefly be heard more loudly, especially when Alves pulled back Lewandoski just before the Pole reached the Barcelona area.

Alonso lined up the free-kick, addressed the ball with his usual expertise, but it thudded into the wall.

Bayern defenders followed Alves into the book. Benatia brought down Iniesta and then Bernat sent Messi crashing to earth. Barcelona were pushing hard, working overtime to create an opening. As the game neared the hour-mark, they stepped up a gear. Messi exchanged passes with Neymar but his shot was straight at Neuer. The German then displayed his sweeper-keeper tendencies, rushing out to clear as Neymar raced on to a Suárez pass.

Rakitic continued to cover every blade of grass, picking out Neymar with a fine pass but the Brazilian curled his shot over. But then came Messi, proving Guardiola right - he is "unstoppable". His first came after 77 minutes, following an attempted Bayern counter-attack. Alves did well to nick the ball, sending Messi running forward before beating Neuer with a left-footed shot, a strike that carried echoes of his goal against Manchester United in the 2011 final.

Three minutes later, Messi conjured up even more magic. This was phenomenal, a goal that utterly bewitched Bayern's defence. Messi's run was so quick, so chilling that Boateng fell over. Messi's lofted finish was so good that Neuer had no chance.

Bayern's hopes of turning it around at the Allianz all but disappeared when Messi sent Neymar through, Rizzoli played great advantage, and Neymar finished empathically past Neuer. The wall was well and truly broken. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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