Despite having the full artillery of the English language at their disposal, it wasn’t the sportswriters who came up with the best word for Lionel Messi’s performance on Wednesday night.
It was actually an ex-footballer. “Barbaric,” said Gary Neville on Sky Sports, as Spanish TV showed us the umpteenth replay. Messi had just nutmegged James Milner tight by the sideline. It was the 38th minute of Barcelona’s Champions League clash with Manchester City at the Camp Nou. Confronted by the hulking figure of the England international, Messi nudged the ball between his legs, skipped around him and continued dribbling.
To compound his embarrassment, Milner was left on his backside, bewildered into diving off his feet by Messi’s hair-trigger speed and brazen cheek. The home crowd loved it. “Barbaric,” said Neville simply, without adding another word.
It was the perfect adjective. Because Messi by now was not so much a footballer as a matador, teasing and taunting the English bull, not with a cape but with a ball. And he was doing it all with the nonchalant insolence of someone revelling in his own genius. Messi was loving every minute of it too.
Andres Iniesta had said in the build-up that they wanted to make Manchester City “suffer”. And they duly inflicted a suffering of the most refined kind: not with boots or elbows but with ball play so brilliant it became sadistic. They ran City ragged in the first half.
City are (still) the champions of England. It is a title that carries historic prestige. But three times in that first half their players had to suffer the indignity of being fooled by a ball through the legs. Each time it happened, the crowd roared with delight. Those nutmegs stained the visitors like stigmata. It was no wonder they ended up with four yellow cards in the first 45, reduced as they were to hacking down their opponents in a crude attempt to salvage some pride.
On the far sideline in the 11th minute, Neymar sold Fernandinho the first of these three-card tricks. But it wasn’t just for show. Barcelona were again displaying the magnetic control that enables them to keep possession in tiny cubicles of space, with tacklers surrounding them on all sides. From there they passed their way through the City lines. A one-two between Iniesta and Messi culminated with the latter shooting at Joe Hart from a tight angle.
“It’s unbelievable football,” remarked an awestruck Neville, “absolutely sensational, that move. The one-two, how do you live with that? It’s so fast?”
The first caveats about Messi’s career surfaced last year after a modest season — obviously by his standards — was left unredeemed by his generally subdued form at the World Cup. In sport in general, the greater the talent the quicker the doubts are floated if there’s any sort of a dip below previously exalted standards. Messi turned just 27 last summer but already whispers about his longevity and physical soundness were congealing into hard speculation.
On Wednesday he was back to his incomparable peak. In the 31st minute Barcelona got the goal that looked inevitable and seemed the precursor to an avalanche. The little Mozart had tamed an awkward ball with one touch; now he dribbled some 30 yards, then shook off two challengers with a brake-and-turn; the curled cross to Ivan Rakitic was geometric.
“It’s outrageous this, really,” said Neville, presumably shaking his head in the commentary box. The Manchester United legend seems to appreciate more deeply than most pundits the unfathomable gift it requires to make skills so difficult look so easy.
He confessed that he too had harboured reservations last summer about Messi’s capacity to sustain his greatness. “But watching him tonight, it’s a scandalous talent.”
In an interesting and rather original way of describing the magic on show, Neville was reaching for mirror-negatives in his lexicon — anti-superlatives, almost — to try to articulate what he was seeing: barbaric, outrageous, scandalous.
These are adjectives that have been used in the past, without any compliment intended, about Luis Suarez. But another measure of Messi’s dominance in the first half was that he’d made a colleague of such menace and charisma seem irrelevant to proceedings. It wasn’t until he fluffed a free header in the 41st minute that we remembered Suarez was even on the field.
Suarez had scored both of Barcelona’s goals in the first leg three weeks earlier in Manchester. And perhaps it was in the aftermath of this match that Messi found his lethal motivation for the return leg. The great man had had his injury-time penalty saved, and then headed the rebound wide with the goal gaping. Who knows, maybe he felt as embarrassed then as Milner did on Wednesday — and was absolutely determined to correct the record.
Tonight he will again go head-to-head with his only contemporary rival for the title of ‘Greatest’. It’s Barcelona versus Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi, the peacock versus the mouse. But for all his fabled humility, there is no doubting Messi’s competitive vanity either.
Thierry Henry spent three seasons with him at Barcelona. Asked on Sky Sports at the Camp Nou last Wednesday if Messi had an ego, Henry — who should know what he’s talking about here — was emphatic. “Of course he has an ego!” Then pointing to the now-empty pitch below he added: I mean, do you think he’d do that without having an ego?”