Rabat – The grace, the beauty of the gestures; his infallibly assuring presence on the pitch; his propensity for impeccable passes; that facility for single-handedly taking upon himself to perforate the fortress of defensive-playing squads—Messi is an emotion.
When a game features him, whatever the result, whatever team he is on, the Argentine has that unique giftedness of making football games what they were meant to be in the first place: a display of beauty and emotion-laden experiences, an anthology of glamorous moments. Messi is anthological.
Messi shone in Stamford Bridge. Despite Kanté’s—who else—almost irreproachable job in overshadowing him, the Argentine genius had moments of divine inspiration in yesterday’s game. He dribbled; gave unbelievable passes; opened the game for his mates.
Most important, he scored Barça’s equalizer, breaking a long-standing spell and propelling himself in the company of players whom no epithet can adequately explain.
Messi’s football has that transcendental elegance that breathes hope. When he is playing, when Barcelona are losing, Barcelona fans, like a soon-to-be-mother facing the turbulence of the delivery phase, and whose great pain is but a pale interlude to the eternal bliss yet to come, turn to Messi to step up, to step in, to equalize, or score the winning goal, or give the ultimate assist. And he usually does. And he did it yesterday.
And they know he will again, because that is what great players do: they reduce the sphere of implausibility and tether you to hope in the most horrendous moments. “Until the last whistle is blown,” their presence seems to be telling fans, “anything is possible.”
The Argentine does not only play the beautiful game; he reinvents it. Valverde’s side may not have been the impeccable squad they were some weeks ago, but they had Messi: That was enough to stand in the way of Chelsea’s almost assured victory.
Some of us may foreground Christensen’s monumental mistake. But isn’t that the point? Defensive blunders are usually a reflection of an unbearable burden, psychological effect of facing a better squad. Barney Ronay, one of the best sport commentators still around, perfectly captured Messi’s relationship with opponents’ mistakes: “Never panic around Messi. He wants you to panic. He smells your panic and runs into it.” That’s right: Messi’s eventful presence is an invitation to perfection. When his teammates make mistakes, he fixes them. And when his opponents err, well, he duly punishes them.
Yesterday, however, it was Willian, Chelsea’s only imposing Brazilian, who marveled us. It was as though the Brazilian coach was out there to prove that in that sea of Brazilian players trying to make it to Russia 2018, Tito had not been wrong to trust him.
The titillating touches, the magnificent runs, his projectile-like ability to deftly throw himself in opposing defenses, the long passes, the crosses, the two fantastical moments in which he hit the post, his goal (that goal!)—everything Willian did yesterday bore that inescapable aura of somebody trying to make a statement.
And so, like Mario Götze in the “Brazil 2014” final that saw Germany deny Messi that ultimately sought-after glory with national team, Willian can end his career in peace: his yesterday’s brilliance gave him an individual trophy that few players can claim: being the man of the match in an important game featuring football’s greatest. Willian was the soul of a game in which Messi broke a curse! He can tell his kids that he once outshone the best of his generation.
Before the game, Antonio Conté, like any other coach playing against Barcelona’s unstoppable machine of beatific ball possession, had told the press that his side was ready to suffer. And suffer they did. 75% of ball possession for Messi and company in the first half, 70% in the second… The game was a traditional Chelsea VS Barça. Barça kept the ball, but seemed to be at a loss as to what to make of their possession; Chelsea barely kept the ball, but knew what to do when they did have it.
Had it been another team, it would have been easy to declare Barcelona officially qualified before the second leg. But this is Chelsea, the only squad that can confer an aura of unattractiveness and impotence to Barcelona’s otherwise magical footballing philosophy. With Chelsea, Barcelona can have 90% of possession and still be knocked out.
The two teams have a history, and one, one both sides, charged with unbridled elation and ineluctable frustration. Iniesta’s legendary equalizer for Barcelona in 2009 and Fernando Torress’ crucifying late goal for Chelsea in 2012 are two such examples. So this game is not over; in fact, it has just begun.
The second leg, to be played on March 15, will be a final. Which is why we like Champions League. It is another level. It has that (tantalizing?) ability of transforming an otherwise normal or dull week into a festival, or a nightmare, depending on which team passes to the next stage and which side the viewer is on. Both teams still have their destinies in their hands. Chelsea will come to the Nou Camp with high expectations, which Barcelona will be determined to crush. We’ll find out soon enough, in three weeks’ time on both sides.