The legend of Lionel Messi grew some more Wednesday night, when the injured Argentine magician came off the bench with 28 minutes left in FC Barcelona's UEFA Champions League quarterfinal match against Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou and turned around, with his sheer presence, the fate of a game Barça was losing, willing his team into the semifinals for a record sixth consecutive year.
Nursing a hamstring injury that held him out of the second half of the first game in Paris eight days before, Messi sat on the bench watching nervously and biting his nails as his teammates were outplayed by the French champions. He got the medical clearance one hour before game time, but it was clear he could not play, otherwise he would have been in the starting lineup.
With no Messi on the pitch, PSG played openly, aggressively, taking apart a shaky, disorganized and confused Barcelona defense and midfield to create many scoring chances. Fortunately Barça goalkeeper Victor Valdes, clearly the man of the night, played his best game in at least five years and managed to hold a clean sheet at the half with several great saves.
When Pastore scored for the visitors four minutes into the second half and the specter of a second straight CL elimination at home descended upon Camp Nou, Barça coach Tito Vilanova sent Messi to warm up and in the 62nd minute the world's best player stepped in for the shadow of Fabregas. Things changed, though it was evident Messi was not physically fit to play. Feeling like a kid having big brother alongside in a fight, Barcelona regained its poise, while PSG players reacted like they were seeing the devil.
Only eight minutes later Messi engineered the tying goal. He dribbled two defenders in front of the penalty area, passed to Villa inside the box, who sent it back to Pedro, whose powerful left footer beat Sirigu into the left corner. Mission accomplished. Barça advances without winning any of the two matches, PSG goes home without losing a game and after looking like the better team on Barcelona's turf.
There was joy at the Camp Nou, but there should be concern also. The team did not play well. Truth is, these days Barcelona does not scare anybody. Sure, there are injuries, but pillars of the team (and of Spain's national team) look maddeningly out of shape and make too many individual mistakes. Barça haters can say again, "Barcelona without Messi is not much," and after this game not many Barça fans can defend their team or its stars. Piqué, Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas, Villa and Pedro all had sub-par performances when they were supposed to be at their best.
Surprisingly Barcelona--not long ago regarded as the best club team in history--looks to be the weakest of the four CL semifinalists. If you asked the coaches of the other three teams what opponent they would like to get in Friday's draw for the semifinals all three would probably say "Barcelona." (OK, Mourinho would probably answer, "Dortmund.") The good news is that there are now two weeks until the first game, and by April 23 Messi would be, hopefully, completely healed and able to perform his usual magic.
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- FC Barcelona