Lionel Messi brilliance leads Barcelona to big first-leg win over Bayern Munich
BARCELONA, Spain -- Two superb goals from Lionel Messi in the final 20 minutes lifted Barcelona to a 3-0 win over Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou. Here are three quick observations from their Champions League semifinal first leg.
1. Great game settled by Messi magic
For 77 minutes on Wednesday night, this was one of the great emotional struggles and tactical battles in European football history as both sides pushed and probed and looked to find an advantage. But then, in just four minutes, Lionel Messi showed how individual genius can just trump everything else.
Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, who did so much to turn Messi into the world's best player during his four unforgettable years at the Camp Nou, had said before the game that no defender or system could stop the Argentine when he is at his best. Guardiola's patched-up Bayern side (missing Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, among others) nearly got to full-time without conceding, but could do nothing about either of the brilliant individual goals that all but decided this tie.
Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had appeared unbeatable but the Germany international was caught out for the opener. Messi took his shot early from just outside the box; his aim was deadly accurate as it blazed just inside the near post. Ninety thousand Blaugrana voices were chorusing "Messi, Messi" almost as soon as the ball hit the net.
Yet Messi didn't stop to think about what he had just done. In Barca's very next attack he completely bamboozled Jerome Boateng with a quick dribble, leaving the Bayern defender on his back inside the area, before calmly lifting the ball over Neuer with his right foot. It was a phenomenal individual goal and those who saw it, whether in the stadium or watching on TV, had witnessed one of the great individual match-winning spells.
In his 100th European game, Messi even moved to 77 Champions League goals, again going ahead of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in their own personal battle for the all-time record. Barca's superstar also passed Ronaldo to get onto 10 goals in this year's competition and become its top scorer.
But this was about more than the statistics. Here was a player who returned to the very peak of his powers, stepped up on the biggest occasion and decided the game on his own. In the first half he showed signs of the mood he was in during Manchester City's visit in the round of 16, using quickness of foot to escape three markers near halfway. Messi's magic was not so decisive that night; here, against his old manager, his best work earned Barca a huge prize.
The 27-year-old admitted at yesterday's pregame news conference that he had not enjoyed recent years since Pep left the Camp Nou and that his former mentor's return wouldn't really affect him emotionally once the game began. But it was hard to believe here that this wasn't a demonstration by Messi, showing everyone (especially his old boss) just how good he can be.
2. Neuer does his best to keep Bayern in it
Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar came into the game with 108 goals between them this season, but for long stages. Barca's seemingly unstoppable force came up against the immovable Neuer.
The Bayern goalkeeper was certainly kept busy during the opening period of the game. Bayern's brave (or foolish) decision to start the game pressing right up the pitch, looking to man-mark all over the field, left Barca's dangerous attackers with plenty of space to break into.
Suarez was clean through twice in the opening quarter-hour. Both times, Neuer sprang from his line to save superbly, first with a flying header to get to a ball outside the box and then by staying big to block the shot with his body when Suarez had time to shoot from closer in. The Uruguayan probably should have done better with the second opportunity but he's hardly the first attacker to rue meeting Neuer in this form.
Just before half-time, Neuer also stopped superbly from Dani Alves after the raiding right-back had been picked out by Andres Iniesta's superb through ball. Alves' close control and immediate shot were fantastic, but not enough to surprise the German.
The second half saw more Messi genius to send Neymar scarpering clear, but Bayern's "sweeper keeper" raced out to clean up the danger. It seemed for a long time that Barca would not be able to find a way past arguably the world's best goalkeeper ... until Messi took over.
Neymar added the third goal when he again nipped in behind the visiting defence, this time able to beat the advancing Neuer. That was especially harsh on the visiting goalkeeper, who for so long had been the consensus pick for the night's star player.
3. Pep's emotional return turns into tactical battle
No matter how much many of the protagonists tried to play it down, this was an emotionally supercharged occasion. After moving through the ranks from La Masia student and ball boy to a midfield leader and then the most successful coach in Barca history, Guardiola sat for the first time on the away bench at the Camp Nou. Six of tonight's Blaugrana starting XI had played under him here.
There was a warm embrace between Guardiola and current Barca coach Luis Enrique before the match; the two former teammates and close friends wished each other the best. Once the action began their sides went full-bore at one another as Pep's three-at-the-back formation, with man-to-man marking in midfield, was punished by Barca's quick balls forward.
Guardiola was quick to fix things, however, switching to a back four; immediately, his side appeared more comfortable. Thiago, returning to the Camp Nou like his boss, began to find pockets of space in midfield. The home defence was cut apart but Robert Lewandowski miscued a cross from Thomas Muller, unmarked just 6 yards out.
Bayern started stronger after half-time, with Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm more prominent and seemingly gaining the upper hand in midfield before Barca's late surge.
Given that he was missing injured attacking duo Robben and Ribery, it seemed that Guardiola was on his way to masterminding an excellent first-leg result. But then what he himself had forecast came to pass. No system and no marker in the world can stop Messi at his best. And so it proved.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan