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08 May 2015 00:00
The magician: Lionel Messi was a blur as he flashed past the Bayern Munich defenders in the Champions League semifinal first leg on Wednesday night. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
Pep Guardiola returned to the Camp Nou and was proved right: Leo Messi is unstoppable. “There is no system that can stop him,” Guardiola had said, “and no coach, either.” Not even him, not even the man who helped make him unstoppable in the first place.
His night became Messi’s night, yet again, the Argentinian’s name ringing round this stadium.
Two goals in three minutes from Messi, both sublime, opened the gates to Berlin and with just seconds remaining Neymar burst right through them to give Barcelona a 3-0 lead.
The road to Berlin must still pass through Munich, but this is a huge lead.
With Guardiola saying that he had only 13 or 14 first team players available, how Bayern Munich would line up was harder to predict, even after their starting XI had been announced. As the game began, it fell into place, but not for long: three central defenders, Thiago and Juan Bernat as wing-backs, and Bastian Schweinsteiger in front of Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso, with Thomas Muller up front, drifting right, and Robert Lewandowski through the middle, wearing a mask to protect a broken jaw and a broken nose.
Soon there was a shift, with Rafinha heading to the right, the back three becoming four, and Thiago moving into a more natural position closer to Lahm and Alonso. Or so it seemed. That was a response to the risk but the risk never went away, for either side, and soon it became almost impossible to keep up with the shifts and the mobility.
Barely a pause
Or, indeed, the game. Guardiola’s first systematic intervention had been swift, not least because the game was even swifter. Both teams pressed high and it was breathless, exhilarating, barely a pause; quick to challenge for the ball and quicker to go for the throat.
At one point, Alonso, theoretically Bayern’s deep defensive midfielder, could be found on the edge of the Barcelona penalty area, pressuring a goal kick. By half-time, he had played more passes than anyone else on the pitch spearing the ball right and left. Beyond the front line of pressure, that first wave, space opened and chances came, right from the start, hence Guardiola’s initial change inside the opening 15 minutes. Lewandowski’s shot hit Pique. Next, Luis Suárez was put through, by a Messi headed flick-on of all things. Running into a huge space in front of him, one on one, his shot was saved by Neuer.
Neymar had a shot blocked, then Lewandowski slid the ball just wide: they had been a total of 10 or 11 metres from goal between them, wonderful chances superbly made by Suárez and Muller respectively. And all that inside 17 minutes. Three minutes after that, Messi curled just wide. At the other end, so did Thiago.
Increasingly, Barcelona got on top, insofar as anyone did. It was open and fast; two teams switching between control and counters, a sense of vertigo taking hold. Guardiola had said before the game that it would not finish 0-0. The surprise was that the first half did. Suárez headed just wide and Neuer made another important save when Andrés Iniesta dinked a lovely pass into the area for Dani Alves to run on to. He controlled on the chest but could not quite guide the ball past the goalkeeper.
The second half began with Guardiola’s team pressing higher than ever before but a Barcelona break from a Bayern corner 11 minutes in tilted the balance back towards the home side. Messi had led that break, running from deep, and a moment later he combined with Neymar to shoot from the edge of the area. Neuer saved.
Some gorgeous footwork from the Brazilian eventually came to nothing and nor did another opportunity four minutes later. Alves and Messi progressed up the right, a one-two and then another, sending Messi into sufficient space to clip the ball beyond the defence for Neymar. The space in front of him was gaping but it was quickly filled by Neuer, who took advantage of a poor touch from Neymar to take it off his toe, 10m outside his area.
To the left, Neymar struck another shot over, and to the right Thiago’s deflected shot almost caught out Marc-André ter Stegen. And then, it happened. The Camp Nou roared, appealing for a penalty that the referee Nicola Rizzoli ignored and, in the din and the confusion, Neuer sought to set Bayern away. Alves, though, was alert. He stepped forward decisively once more, winning yet another ball on the right, nearer Bayern’s goal than his own.
He nudged it through Alonso’s legs and played it inside to Messi, who had accompanied his run again. Messi dropped a shoulder and, left-footed, hit the ball hard and low from the edge of the area and into the net at the near post.
The similarity to his strike in the 2011 final at Wembley was startling; the chances of reaching another final, this time in Berlin, grew. A pile of celebrating bodies built in the corner.
Three minutes later, Barcelona took another step. Again, the genesis was pressure; again, Messi provided the finish. Ivan Rakitic won it this time, releasing for Messi, who ran at Boateng, the slightest swivel of his hips enough to leave the defender tumbling to the ground. As Neuer came towards him, Messi lifted the ball over him right-footed into the net. It was nearly done. When Neymar ran through in the last minute and slipped the ball beyond Neuer, it really was. A wonderful game got a wonderful finish. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
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