The plan, apart from presenting FC Barcelona with an atrocious pitch with the grass almost scratched off of the playing surface, was simple — at least that is how Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham's coach, in many ways the opposite of Jose Mourinho as he excused himself from invoking, well, excuses, explained it before kick-off: playing Barcelona wasn't tough, even with a depleted team. "The key today is to be offensive and try to have the ball in possession and try to force them to defend and go backwards," asserted the Argentine. "The most important is to be aggressive and try to play the ball in their half. That is the key to beating this type of team."
After 92 seconds and a goal down the plan remained the same. After 28 minutes, the plan had become redundant. Twice Lionel Messi had set up Barcelona's goals. He dropped deep to orchestrate the visitors' play, almost nullifying the position and role of Arthur, Barcelona's Brazilian number eight, but there was a delight in watching the Barcelona ensemble move around Messi. At times, it seemed as if every Barcelona move had to pass through Messi. He commanded the game with his vision, passing and awareness of space. As a consequence, Barcelona were in complete control.
First, Messi carved open Tottenham's rearguard with a precise low pass behind Kieran Trippier. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, prone to rash decision-making on nights out in London, misjudged the pass, allowing Jordi Alba to tee up Philippe Coutinho to open the scoring. For the second goal, an exquisite 'Roketic' from Ivan Raketic, a picture perfect example of getting your body over the ball, Messi dinked a pass into the box for Luis Suarez. Messi's passes were enchanting, conveying a purity and simplicity that almost supplanted the actual objective of the sport, scoring goals and winning. Those passes also signalled that Messi can no longer carry the team the way he did in the past. His bursts of speed have become less frequent, his body no longer possessing the vitality and the blistering pace of yesteryear. By dropping a bit deeper, Messi attained a different role, as influential, but with different characteristics.
On the night these considerations were of secondary importance. In between the goals, Barcelona were daunting, a hunting pack, remorseless and overflowing with energy. The Catalonians' level of industriousness was formidable. They buzzed around the Tottenham players, deep on the Londoners' half. Messi was among the chief zealots. At 31, he ran with a demented lust. The diminutive Argentinean fit three players into one: an extraordinary midfielder, a great striker and a diligent first defender.
His unmistaken aptitude and attitude galvanised those around him. Alba overlapped time and again and provided incisive passes and fine crosses. Arthur turned after passing and created angles. Suarez, who endured a difficult time last season, combined with intelligence, often sacrificing himself. The harmony and the high press, covering the entire width and breadth of the field, reduced Tottenham to a token team.
After the interval, the hosts tried to reserve roles. They applied a high press. In vain. Tottenham simply liberated Messi, offering him space and the stage for a transcendent cameo. He was no longer playing among mortals, but floating across the field like an angel, exploring the limits of the game. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff once claimed that he deliberately hit the post sometimes because he liked the sound. So Messi, in the midst of a high-stakes Champions League game, decided to flirt with the woodwork, Lloris' right-hand post. In a state of trance and with the help of the helpless Toby Alderweireld, who seemingly wanted to force Messi onto his left foot each and every time, Messi rolled the ball against the post thrice. First, with a neat pass-shot, then with a powerful attempt from the edge of the box and finally with a careful strike, in off the base of the post. It was Messi on repeat with frightening precision, with the sole purpose of reminding us all that football was simply a game. On his own terms, Messi achieved poetic justice.
In between Messi's coquetry with the goalpost, Harry Kane had dragged Tottenham back into the game with a drag back and angled goal. Erik Lamela scored a second for the Londoners, following a deflection off Clement Lenglet. Suddenly, Tottenham played with the gusto and the press that Pochettino had envisaged from the outset. The Messianic dominance faded as Barcelona shut down. Tottenham probed and poked. Lucas Moura had a fine chance blocked by Lenglet, but an exhilarating night of elite football belonged to Lionel Messi. With precise cool, following another dummy from Suarez, he scored Barcelona’s fourth as the Spanish repeated a 1999 win against Arsenal with the same scoreline at the same venue in the same competition. The last goal was the culmination of an extraordinary European night, one of Messi's finest. At 31, the Argentine has different attributes, but he remains unstoppable.
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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2018 15:55:53 IST