After a dull as dishwater period of horribly predictable group stages, the Champions League has burst into life in the last couple of months with the onset of the knockout phase delivering some brilliant games and compelling storylines.
With Bayern Munich’s awesome 10-2 humiliation of Arsenal, the continuation of Leicester’s fairy tale, a reunion between Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, the crazy 12-goal explosion between Monaco and Manchester City and the horrific attack on Borussia Dortmund’s players, there has been more than enough drama both on and off the pitch to cement the competition’s place as the greatest in world football.
Oh yes, there was also THAT game involving Barcelona. You know, the one where they scored three goals in the final seven minutes to engineer an outrageous victory over Paris St Germain which many battle-hardened observers described as the greatest game they had ever seen.
So this year’s Champions League is bubbling up into a memorable edition, with established stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann restating their quality while young bucks like Kylian Mbappe and Paolo Dybala have also come to the fore.
But one person has been conspicuous by his absence from the headlines in the last few weeks – a man who can normally be relied upon to dominate the sports pages all over the world.
Where is Lionel Messi?
Let’s not lapse into dramatic overstatements and start making silly claims that Messi has entered into a terminal decline and that Barca need to start planning for life without him.
That is plainly not the case – the Argentine is the leading scorer in both La Liga and the Champions League this season with 29 and 11 goals in those respective competitions. He is hardly struggling.
But it is certainly true that Messi has not reached his usual stratospheric standards in any of Barca’s last three big European outings.
His performance in the first leg of the last sixteen tie against Paris St Germain was particularly bad, with his lacklustre and error-strewn showing widely regarded as one of the worst of his career.
Although he was much better in the second leg, he was significantly overshadowed by the remarkable performance of Neymar, who almost single-handedly inspired Barca’s ridiculous comeback in the dying minutes.
Messi was again relatively subdued in last week’s first leg against Juventus, although he did very nearly help turn the tie back in Barca’s favour with a delicious through ball for Andres Iniesta, whose shot was saved by Gigi Buffon. Just seconds later, Dybala added a second for Juve to give the hosts daylight.
Perhaps the best description of Messi’s displays over the knockout phase would be to state that they have been akin to something you would expect from any normal player – a mixture of good, bad and indifferent.
But Messi is not a normal footballer, and he knows it. Although he does not often show it – and hardly ever speaks in public to express it – he is deeply aware of his reputation and his status, and it will be a matter of intense irritation to him that he has not really contributed during the knockout stages of this Champions League campaign.
On Wednesday, though, Messi has another opportunity to remind the watching world of just how special he is and you can be completely certain that he has every intention of doing just that.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that he will pull off something spectacular. Just because he is hungry does not mean that success will automatically follow, especially against a Juventus defence which should without doubt be regarded as one of the best in the world.
But if there’s anyone capable of masterminding yet another historic comeback, that man is Lionel Messi. And if he hits the heights at the Camp Nou, after a period of relative quiet, we could be in for a very special occasion.
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