The English press corps like to imagine ourselves a world-weary, cynical bunch, difficult to please and hard to impress. We've been there, done that, and don't mind telling everybody. Yet on Tuesday night, in the vertiginous press box hanging off the roof of the Nou Camp, there were applause and gasps of wonder at the performance of Lionel Messi. Even those sympathetic to Arsenal were half-pleased when Messi scored his fourth. It completed the sense that this was an "I was there" night, one to look back on when the laptop and notebooks are finally prised from our fingers.
There have been a few of those nights in a quarter-century working in this privileged world. Individual moments such as Michael Owen's goal against Argentina in St Etienne; team performances like England's 5-1 storming of Munich; dramatic comebacks such as Manchester United in 1999 against Juventus and Bayern Munich; and stirring matches like Fulham's recent thrashing of Juventus at the Cottage.
However, notwithstanding Roy Keane's performance in Turin a decade ago, David Beckham's against Greece in 2001, and other outstanding displays from the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Gullit and Zinedine Zidane, it is hard to recall an individual so influential in terms of the final result of a major match as Messi was.
It was not just that he scored four, he terrorised Arsenal throughout and could have had seven. His performance lifted his own team and destroyed the momentum Arsenal had built. And it was all so thrilling to watch. Dribblers always delight and Messi is the best. Arsène Wenger highlighted the speed with which he can change direction, he is also perfectly balanced with a change of pace. Less bulky than Diego Maradona, but of similar stature, he is a difficult proposition for big centre-halves and, once clear, no easier for goalkeepers because his technical ability, said Manuel Almunia, means "he can do anything at any moment". The Spaniard, so beautifully lobbed for the third, added: "You try to guess and anticipate what he is doing, but you have to be lucky to stop him."
One passage of play, when he weaved past a series of tackles before being halted by Denilson evoked memories of another Argentine, Claudio Caniggia, hurdling assorted Cameroonian tackles before Benjamin Massing crudely cut him down. That was in the opening match of the 1990 World Cup. It was fouls like that, and much sterile play, which prompted Fifa into the reforms that enable the likes of Messi and Ronaldo to flourish in the modern game (Denilson's tackle was firm, but not violent). As Maradona may have pointed out to Messi at an Argentinian squad meet, in his day the tackling was brutal. The demolition of Maradona's ankle by Andoni Goicoechea is best-known but plenty followed the Butcher of Bilbao's example, notably a raft of defenders in the 1982 World Cup, including the notorious Italian hatchet man Claudio Gentile. Maradona responded, eventually, in kind and was dismissed but Messi, albeit better protected, seems simply to get up.
That is in keeping with his quiet, understated manner. Asked about Tuesday night Messi said modestly: "I'm so happy with the victory and how the game went, but I know I have to keep improving."
Messi added: "The important thing is not who does it but that the team does it. That is the mentality that we've shown in recent games, but we have to continue working hard."
That aspect was crucial. George Graham, a former Arsenal manager cut from very different cloth to Wenger, once said after a battering by Milan, "good players working hard, that's what makes a great team." Josep Guardiola's Barcelona work hard and Messi works as hard as anyone.
In his desire to work hard off as well as on the ball Messi is similar to Wayne Rooney. Both seem simply to revel in playing football. "He deserves everything he has achieved because of his love of the game," said Guardiola.
And people love watching Messi play. Dani Alves, Barça's rampaging right-back, spoke for all except the defenders who have to mark Messi, when he said: "To everybody that loves football, that has this passion for the game, it's such a great feeling to know there is a player like Leo."Reuse content