Lionel Messi has shown many different faces during his spell-binding career but in Barcelona’s win over Liverpool on Wednesday, the dominant one was of a leader.
Barca were not at their best at Camp Nou, instead made to sweat and suffer against a Liverpool side that were just as dangerous in the first half and then dominant for at least a 20-minute period in the second.
But when his team were struggling, Messi delivered, two goals in seven minutes turning turn a disappointing night into a disastrous one for Liverpool and leaving Barcelona with one foot in the Champions League final.
“In these moments, he is unstoppable,” Jurgen Klopp said. “I knew before that he was a world-class player and I saw it again. I am not surprised.”
“I am always surprised,” said Ernesto Valverde. “I don’t know how he does it.”
In the end, 3-0 seemed harsh, lacking the away goal Liverpool deserved and requiring now a comeback in the second leg at Anfield that would surely rival the 2005 miracle in Istanbul.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane terrorised Barca’s defence, the latter perhaps even the game’s stand-out player during a breathless opening 45 minutes, in which both teams might have scored two or three.
But while Liverpool’s deadly duo have an impressive 50 goals between them this season, Suarez and Messi have 75, their knack of finding, creating and converting chances unparallelled and, in this first leg, decisive.
Between Mane firing over from eight yards and Salah hammering the post, Messi tapped into an open net and arced a free-kick, past the right hand of Alisson and into the top corner.
It was his second goal on the night and 600th for Barcelona, after 683 games, 14 years to the day since his first. He now has 12 goals in this season’s Champions League, only two short of his best in 2012.
“He’s a fantastic player, it’s obvious,” Virgil van Dijk said. “I think the hard part is that when we attack, he is waiting somewhere, in the corner or anywhere, you can never switch off.”
It was also the 100th time he had worn the captain’s armband for his club and in some ways, this season has ushered in another cycle of Messi. From dribbler, to scorer, to creator, Messi, at 31, is now Barelona’s leader too.
He walked them out, scored two goals and walked them back in, saluting the crowd as he went. He defended Philippe Coutinho, by gesturing to the fans not to whistle as he was substituted and then admonishing them during a frank post-match interview.
“It’s ugly to say goodbye to a player like that,” Messi said. “We were in a defining moment, we are in an important moment where we have to be more united than ever, all of us, as a team.
“We said at the beginning of the year that we are going to achieve this together and it is not a moment to criticise anyone but to support, to push forward and to do this all together.”
Valverde was keen to point out that Barcelona threw away a three-goal cushion against Roma in the quarter-finals last season but, avoid a repeat at Anfield, and his team are within touching distance of a treble.
With La Liga wrapped up, they face Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey this month before a potential Champions League decider against either Tottenham or Ajax in Madrid on June 1.
“We have only a few games left and hopefully two finals,” Messi said. “We will do it all together.”