Sometimes, greatness is thrust upon human shoulders allowing superhuman feats to be achieved.
Lionel Messi is titanium. Hamstrung and clearly unfit, he ensured Barcelona would not fall. Starting from the bench, it was his introduction that allowed Barcelona to rise above the solid resistance that was being posed by PSG.
Ever since he went down holding the back of his leg a week ago, PSG had dominated the tie. For the first 45 minutes at the Camp Nou, they continued the good work of the last 45 in Paris. Resilient, well organised, tight in defence. It was no surprise. Within the starting XI, seven had played in Italy’s Serie A, with one other having played in Serie B. Thus, defensive organisation was no problem.
Of surprise however was the bravery in attack. Few have the bravery to confront Barcelona so boldly — especially in Catalunya. Numbers poured forward quick and fast. Lucas Moura, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore and Zlatan Ibrahimovich all bearing down on the Barca goal. It was the sort of bravery required to trouble this otherwise makeshift and weak Barca defence.
It was bravery that also required risk. A key component of that risk was leaving Dani Alves the freedom to advance, but then exploiting the space he had vacated. That was evident in the goal that PSG scored. Pastore got the ball, played a one-two with Zlatan, and then ran into that vacuum to clip the ball past a hapless Victor Valdes.
Symbolically so. The money from the Qatar Investment Authority may have arrived much earlier, but it was only when Leonardo came into the picture as Football Director that a raid on Serie A began. That raid started with Pastore’s expensive purchase, and has continued since then. He may have been signed to perform the role that is now Ibrahimovich’s — tactical leader, individual brilliance, game changer — but even now as one of the Swede’s capable assistants, he was showing that the revolution is nearing reality.
The Italian Renaissance is fuelling the French Revolution.
Even their Italian manager was getting his tactical setup spot on. Carlo Ancelotti had not brought Barca down to its knees, but he was clearly getting the better of the bout. Pound for pound. Literally, as well as figuratively.
That was, until, the call was made. Once the alarm bell was sounded, the ultimate weapon was unleashed even though it did not have enough firepower yet. A punctured Ferrari brought in to race among the Fiats.
Messi started warming up and the crowd started heating up. In a way, the crowd had betrayed the performers on the pitch. Great poets need great audiences but this had been an audience that was dour. They had mistakenly thought that winning was a given and that minimal work was required. Therefore, they had not summoned the same type of atmosphere that is evident in clasicos, or was as against AC Milan in the last round.
But here to calm their now worried faces was the man who has performed gladiatorial feats in front of them. Once the little Argentine stripped his top to reveal that number, and that name; once he got on to the pitch, there was delight. Fear gone, hugs and kisses, joy, high fives everywhere, chants of victory as victory was now no longer a matter of chance — it was now as obvious as the stars in the night sky.
Something big shifted in that moment. Not tactical but psychological. The confidence boost was injected not only in the crowd, but also among the blaugrana players. The passes were now being strung, the moves slick, the chances created and the goal eventually scored. Wiggling away from PSG defenders, Messi put David Villa through, whom with awareness, set up Pedro Rodriguez for the killing blow.
Messi had done it, even though he clearly was not at his best. That however was not what the PSG players thought — just the presence of Messi made them quiver. On the other hand, his presence made his teammates deliver.
Once more, the Argentine continues to etch his name in history much deeper and in bolder letters. This was a feat that transcends sport, and it reminds of that famous Michael Jordan ‘Flu Game’ in 1997. Jordan, the basketball legend, played in a decisive NBA Finals game even though he was visibly ill and in pain. That he helped his team to a narrow win set the stage for winning the Finals in the next game.
That was what Messi did here. He showed that despite what anyone does, Messi at whatever reduced percentage is greater than anyone (or sometimes, any team) at 100 per cent.
His influence transcends the game. He sets the agenda, and decides it.
As such, that papered over the cracks of what was a poor Barca performance. A weak defence was lucky not to have been punished more over the two legs. And the famed midfield was dominated by 20 year old Marco Veratti — a man who was just last year playing in Italy’s second division.
Messi however — as he has done on so many occasions before, and will continue to do so in so many occasions to come — proved to be the unquestionable, invincible antidote.
Shakespeare once wrote “… some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em…” Messi’s name may very well substitute the word ‘some’.