By Rory Smith
Still, they gasp. Still, after all this time, after all he has done, long after his brilliance should have become commonplace, after our expectations should have been adjusted and our capacity for surprise dulled, Lionel Messi can still draw the breath and dazzle the eyes and bring a crowd of nearly 100,000 to its feet.
Even when everything is in flux — when a bright, young Ajax team can go to Turin and beat wily old Juventus, when Cristiano Ronaldo can miss out on the Champions League semifinals, when guards seem to be changing and eras ending — a 3-0 second-leg quarterfinal victory over Manchester United featured soccer’s one great, enduring constant: Messi beaming, Barcelona winning, opponents left staring, hollow and glassy, at a genius that defies belief.
This is, at a rough estimate, the fourth iteration of Messi, the latest in a series of upgrades. It is easy to forget, given the scale of his achievements since, that the Messi who emerged all those years ago was a winger: the Messi who was considered too small, too slight, who roamed Barcelona’s right flank, away from the monsters of the middle.
It was Pep Guardiola who took the risk, demoting two of the great strikers of their generations, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so that Messi might play centrally. It was a move so radical, so unorthodox, that a term had to be coined — or at least borrowed from Italy — to explain it. Messi’s first rebirth was as a “false 9.”
There is no easy distinction between eras, no clear and distinct cauterization, no moment when he stopped being one thing and became another. By the time he picked up his fourth and most recent Champions League trophy, in 2015, he was something else again: a striker and a schemer combined, a 9 and a 10, with Neymar to one side and Luis Suárez, his friend and neighbor, to the other.
What is remarkable is that each version has been, arguably, the finest exponent of that position in history; each and every one has been captured by a moment that confirms his mastery of that role, that suggests he had completed that particular task and was ready for something new.
Messi the winger: the goal against Getafe, in 2007, when he darted and dived around, between and at one point through five players before scoring. Messi the false 9: the header in the 2009 Champions League final, perhaps, the goal that proved he was really not a false anything. Messi the one-man attack: his second goal against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champions League semifinal, the one when, in what seemed like slow motion, Jerome Boateng collapsed onto his back, his head spinning and his feet bound by Messi’s deft brilliance.
And now we come to this Messi: the Messi that defies categorization. Looking back, it is tempting to wonder if this was always going to be his final transformation, his ultimate metamorphosis, his highest and purest form: listed as an attacker, alongside Suárez and Philippe Coutinho, but no longer hidebound by such banal ideas as fixed positions.
Messi, now, at 31, goes where he likes, when he likes, and Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona flexes its shape to fit in the gaps. He spends the first 10 minutes or so of every game ambling around, working out where the opposition is weakest — it took him some time against this version of Manchester United — and then stations himself in whatever position he thinks will cause most damage. His teammates make the necessary adjustments, and he gets to work.
It is impossible to know whether this Messi has already recorded one of those defining moments. Perhaps it will, in time, prove to have been that chip against Real Betis a few weeks ago, the ball floating for an age before arcing over the line. It is one of the hallmarks of Messi’s greatness that so much of it is so serene, so peaceful. There is rarely any anger to his play: more the ruthless grace of Roger Federer than the explosive strength of Rafael Nadal. He caresses his passes and strokes his shots, control always prized above power.
The other is that he does not abuse his ability: He rarely indulges himself with impossible shots from distance, seeking headlines and limelight and acclaim. His software is now sufficiently sophisticated that he can seemingly calculate the odds of any given decision: He shoots only when that is the correct decision.
His first goal here Tuesday was a case in point. He nutmegged the midfielder known as Fred on the edge of United’s box — not because it drew the biggest gasp from the crowd or because it showcased his genius, but because it was the simplest route to the spot, just outside the penalty area, from which he could whip the ball around David De Gea. (His second goal does not warrant such examination — a soft shot that De Gea, uncharacteristically, fumbled: Even the greats are allowed to get lucky.)
Maybe that goal will prove to be the high-water mark of this version of Messi; maybe it is still to come. He produces brilliance with such astounding frequency that only with hindsight — and a considerable amount of it, too — is certainly possible.
An example: if Messi had been able to finish off a run, late in the first half, that took him past three United midfielders and referee Felix Brych, and left Phil Jones twisted and turned and tortured, his first goal would have seemed fairly ordinary, by his standards; so, too, if he had managed to convert an impromptu scissor kick in the second.
The question, now, is how far that brilliance can carry Barcelona. An eighth Spanish title in 11 years is nearly secure already — a run of domestic success unparalleled in the club’s history — but a first Champions League semifinal appearance since 2015 is, arguably, of greater significance.
Most likely, it will be Liverpool that awaits there, and then either Ajax or another English emissary, Manchester City or Tottenham, in the final. A glance at the Premier League table confirms that Liverpool is a more imposing proposition than this United, so easily tamed; there are, without doubt, flaws in this Barcelona, space for opponents to exploit, weaknesses to expose.
As long as Messi, this latest Messi, is there, however, they may not matter. He can cover for a multitude of sins. He can be enough, all on his own. Those who stand in his way know that only too well. Guardiola was told, earlier this year, that his Manchester City was the favourite for the Champions League. No, he said, not at all: “Whoever has Messi, they are the favourites.”
He knows what he can do, what he continues to do, what he always does. He knows that nothing, when it comes to Messi, can be considered a surprise.