Cometh the hour…you know the rest.
When Barcelona needed someone to settle their nerves in Sunday’s crucial local derby, would they turn to anyone else than Lionel Messi?
Although it was eventually as easy as the scoreline suggests, the clash with Espanyol was a real potential banana skin in the La Liga title race. If the visitors, who came into the game determined to ruin their much-loathed neighbours’ title aspirations, had managed to survive the opening 20 or 30 minutes, it would have become a notably nervy occasion.
In that scenario, Espanyol’s dangerous counter-attacking would have become increasingly important; with Barca desperate for an opener and their fans growing ever restless, the visitors would have grown in confidence and the title race could have been given another twist.
But none of that happened, because Messi did not allow it to happen. Instead, with less than 10 minutes played, he curled home a beautiful free-kick which gave Espanyol keeper Pau Lopez no chance and provided his team with the early advantage they so badly needed.
Two minutes later, Messi was there again, combining brilliantly with Luis Suarez to tee up Ivan Rakitic for a simple tap-in which was wrongly ruled out for offside.
And although Espanyol battled hard to stay in the game until the second half, Messi again played a major role in ensuring his team killed off the game, delivering a perfectly-weighted pass to tee up Suarez for a 2-0 lead which effectively squashed the visitors’ challenge.
7 - Lionel Messi has scored seven free kick goals this season, more than any other player in Top 5 European Leagues (all comps). Ace.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 8, 2016
One goal, one assist, and Messi had – once again – played the key role in keeping Barcelona’s title challenge on track.
We shouldn’t be surprised, because although the entire Barca squad is packed full of world-class talent in every position, the team still revolves around Messi.
Gerard Pique’s elegance and Javier Mascherano’s tenacity in defence, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves’s attacking bursts from fullback, Sergio Busquets contolling midfield, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic thrusting forward, Neymar pulling out the tricks and Suarez banging in the goals.
They all help to make Barca the team they are, and most of those players would walk straight into the starting XI at pretty much any club in the world. None of them, however, exert the same influence upon the action as Messi, who is able to seize any game, against any opposition, by the scruff of its neck.
When Messi is ‘on’, there’s very little to be done against him, and on Sunday Espanyol became just the latest in a long line of victims.
Messi cannot always prevail, of course. He is, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, only human, and at times he can be successfully subdued as demonstrated by Atletico Madrid in their Champions League triumph over Barca. But no other player in the world, perhaps no other player in history, possesses the same capability as the Argentine to win a game more or less single-handedly.
Or, more accurately considering the cool precision with which he dispatched his latest set-piece masterpiece, single-footed. There will be many variables in play when La Liga goes down to next weekend’s straight fight between Barca and Real Madrid.
How much motivation will mid-table Deportivo La Coruna muster against Madrid? How will Granada approach their meeting with Barca? Will Luis Enrique’s defence deal with the pace of Granada’s exciting forwards? Will Luis Suarez find the net again? Will Neymar blow hot or cold?
And the same will be true when Barca chase another trophy in the following week’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla.
Will the opposition be boosted or demoralised by their Europa League final against Liverpool? Will Barca be celebrating or commiserating the end of the league season?
But when all’s said and done, all those factors could pale into insignificance alongside the biggest potential match-winner in world football.
If Messi delivers, Barca will win both games and win both titles. It’s that simple.
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