Messi touches true greatness
The feats achieved by Lionel Messi seem to increase by the year, but one of his greatest moments (outside of the multiple awards and trophies) could be said to have come on a single day - April 6, 2010 - as Barcelona took on Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Messi scored all four goals in one of the most dominant displays ever seen on the pitch and, at just 22, overtook Rivaldo as Barcelona's all-time top scorer in the competition in the process.
By 2010, Lionel Messi was already well established on the world stage. In fact, from the moment the diminutive Argentine was thrust into first-team action six years earlier, he had been tipped for greatness, although few would ever have been able to predict such a meteoric rise.
Compared to the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and every other giant of the world game, Messi had taken over the famous No. 10 shirt at Camp Nou a year earlier and his performances had been a major part of their historic six-trophy haul in 2008-09. As the new decade arrived, Messi was riding the crest of a wave after the Club World Cup in Japan and could do no wrong as they advanced to the Champions League quarter-finals to face Arsenal a few months later.
A match against the Gunners, however, had held one of the lowest points of the youngster's career. In 2006, with Barcelona and Arsenal having reached the Champions League final, Messi was left out of the squad for the Paris showpiece. "The 18-year-old hadn't had enough training time, following his injury in February, to be risked," wrote Graham Hunter in his book Barca: The making of the greatest team in the world. The Argentine had been such a bright spark in getting his side to the final - with the games against Chelsea a particular highlight - but he refused to join in the celebrations of his team-mates as the Catalans came from behind to win 2-1 as he felt he had not been a part of the victory.
"I had a rush of blood to the head," he told Hunter in an interview months later. "But it was just a handful of minutes when, to be truthful, I was in a bad way and I took a decision in the heat of the moment without thinking properly. Almost as soon as the chance to celebrate with all the guys and the trophy on the pitch was gone, I realised that I had made a mistake and the regrets overwhelmed me... Even now I feel completely different about my La Liga medal and my Champions League medal [in 2006]."
Messi's overwhelming desire to play had seen him act petulantly, putting himself before his club. By the time the next clash with Arsenal arrived, four years later, a lot had changed and the forward had matured into one of the most level-headed players in the game.
Faced with a test against the Gunners [albeit a side of less quality than that of the Paris final] in the quarter-finals of the 2009-2010 Champions League, Messi had become a completely different player. For his country, 2006 World Cup and 2007 Copa America campaigns had not gone as planned, but his form for his club had seen the comparisons to Maradona become a reality for the first time. A third La Liga title had been sealed (although only the second in which he made what he would consider a 'meaningful' contribution); a 'first' Champions League medal (in 2008-09) and his domination in the [FIFA] Ballon D'Or had begun. Arsenal were left in no doubt that the Barcelona baton had been passed to the forward, but their hopes were raised of pulling off an upset after a 2-2 draw in the first-leg at Emirates Stadium.
Failing to make his usual impact, Messi had been something of a spectator as his strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic took command and scored a brace to put them 2-0 up. Goals from Theo Walcott and a late Cesc Fabregas penalty rescued a draw for the Gunners, and Arsene Wenger would have been relatively happy with the fact Messi was kept off the scoresheet. But some foolhardy critics took up their column inches by accusing the Argentine of underperforming. He would have the perfect riposte.
Arsenal needed to win, or at least secure a 2-2 draw to force penalties in the return leg at Camp Nou and, when Nicklas Bendtner caught Barca on the break to net an away goal in the 18th minute, hope appeared for Arsenal; panic spread for the Catalans. "For a moment, serenity disappeared, as defenders looked accusingly at each other. Time for a leader," wrote The Daily Telegraph's Ian Chadband.
The concern did not last long as Messi took over - scoring his fourth hat-trick of the calendar year in a devastating 21-minute spell. After a few sighters on goal, the first came as he ran at the Arsenal defence, playing an inadvertent one-two with the hapless Mikael Silvestre before hammering a powerful shot past Manuel Almunia. From such a short back-lift, the power generated was hugely impressive and the Spanish goalkeeper could only grasp at thin air at the ball swerved past him.
On 32 minutes, Messi began and ended the goal that killed the Gunners off. A wonderful pass down the left released Eric Abidal and his cross caused confusion in the Arsenal defence. Thomas Vermaelen half cleared, Pedro tidied up and slipped the ball to Messi who then rounded Gael Clichy on the outside before clipping the ball over the advancing Almunia. 2-1 and 4-3 on aggregate; Barca were now in full flow.
Five minutes later, his hat-trick was complete and it was the best of the lot. As Arsenal tried unsuccessfully to play the offside trap, Seydou Keita's header from the halfway line sent the Argentine clear again. The finish was sublime: a delicate lob over Almunia from the edge of the area. "You try to anticipate what he is going to do but he can do whatever he wants and at any moment," Almunia said after the game. "How do you stop this kind of player?"
Arsenal did not have the answer and in the second half, after another dreadful attempt to play offside, Messi was clear on goal again. This time he dawdled slightly, allowing the Gunners a glimpse of hope to stop him. They could not. Vermaelen and Clichy failed to block his shot and even when Almunia managed to keep it out, Messi hammered his fourth through the lot of them to put the finishing touches on a wonderful individual display. 6-3 on aggregate; 4-1 on the night.
"I don't know how many players in the world who could score that fourth goal he scored," lamented Wenger after the game. "It looks impossible but he makes it possible."
The press were equally astonished by Messi's magic. "It was so incredible that everyone seemed reduced to involuntary fits of laughter at this one-man version of last week's 11-man brilliance," wrote Chadband. "Yet for Barca, the most precious thing was that, as only the very finest footballers can, he employed his blessed gift just when the side needed it most."
The Guardian's Dom Fifield summed up: "The 22-year-old was at the heart of everything Barcelona mustered. Arsene Wenger may have been too agitated, forever turning away in exasperation as if imploring Pat Rice to explain every missed pass, to appreciate the true majesty on show. When the Frenchman pores over the DVD of this match, he will salivate like the rest of us. Arsenal could point to defensive errors as having contributed but Messi's finishes still took the breath away."
A breathless Wenger, who had seen his fair share of talents emerge, did just that, saying: "Once he's on the run, Messi is unstoppable. He's the only player who can change direction at such a pace. He is the best player in the world by some distance. He's (like) a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make."
Messi's four-goal haul was not only the first time he had managed that figure in his career - becoming only the sixth player in Champions League history to do so - they were also enough to make him Barcelona's leading scorer in the competition and match his total goal tally from the previous season (38). He would go on to score another nine, but that was only the tip of the iceberg of what the world could expect from the best player on the planet in the coming years.
What happened next? Messi's form helped Barcelona to claim the Primera Division title in 2009-10, but they were unable to match their silverware sextuple of the previous year and went out of the Champions League in the semi-finals to Inter Milan. Still, Messi's 34 goals in 35 games in La Liga; eight from 11 in the Champions League and a grand total of 47 in 53 appearances that season set him apart from his peers. The Argentine would pick up the next three Ballon D'Or awards and, amid a plethora of other prizes, trophies and praise, the coveted Champions League title arrived again in 2010-11.
At the end of that triumph, manager Pep Guardiola was asked about his No. 10. "Messi is the one who makes the difference, who takes us to another level," he said. "We have excellent players, great team work, tactics, we work hard, but it's Messi that takes us to another level. He'll never be repeated. He's the best player I've ever seen; the best player I'll ever coach." And, now at the tender age of 25, Messi continues to break the boundaries of what is possible in the game.