Barcelonas 4-2 defeat of Tottenham in the Champions League at Wembley was an occasion just to stand and gawp at Lionel Messi, who can bend the game according to his own physical laws
Sometimes you really do just have to stand and watch and maybe gawp a little, too. The best athletes in every sport give us a glimpse of something else, a remix of the usual physical laws. At Wembley this sensation had an extra depth as Lionel Messi produced a hall-of-fame performance but did so in a Barcelona team who were stretched at times even as the genius at the other end was scoring twice, hitting the post twice and helping to make the other two in a 4-2 win.
More than ever watching Barcelona felt like a game within a game, two planes of sporting reality intersecting. In the game just below the surface a team of high-class bolt-on parts and ageing links worked hard at keeping its passing and pressing game on track. And in the other game, the one layered over the top, Messi simply took the night away from everyone else, producing irresistible moments of control and vision, and swiping the Spurs defence aside like a cobweb round a window frame.
It did not take long for Messis first law of physics to assert itself. This is the law that says Messi can basically make it up as he goes along. With 90 seconds gone that familiar hunched figure picked the ball up in the centre circle and spun around, the Messi sonar already picking out the location and trajectory of every object within his range.
At that moment the pass out to Jordi Alba did not really exist. There were bodies in the way. The line of sight was blocked. The pass was an idea, something scribbled on a Post-It note, talks about talks.
Messi did it anyway, hitting the ball with just enough fade to glide through the narrow target area between Philippe Coutinho and Kieran Trippier as they ran back. Trippier was almost turned inside out, wrenching his neck round, corkscrewing himself into the turf. Hugo Lloris saw it too late, rushing out in a panic, arms waggling at his sides, like a man chasing chickens across a motorway intersection. The weight of the pass was perfect, offering Alba a half-volley inside to Coutinho, whose finish was spanked through the covering bodies. With two minutes gone a single Messi pass had left the white shirts writhing about in their own area like the dregs from the last night-bus home.
Messis passing has been a feature of his late-career bloom, that footballing spider-sense allowing him to freeze the movement in front of him, a snapshot within which he is free to do the most horrible things with his left foot. Left feet like these are often described as cultured or educated. On this scale Messis left foot is Stephen Hawking on caffeine pills, the nineyearold maths prodigy who wins Countdown for a year, Coleridge just after he has finished reading every book ever written and thinks, right, time to get down to some real study.
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