Magical Messi keeps Barca’s dream alive
Argentinian's virtuoso show ensures that his club keep the Spanish flag flying
Barcelona captain Lionel Messi was showered with praise by his coach Ernesto Valverde and opposition manager Bruno Genesio, after a headline performance in his side's 5-1 win over Lyon to reach the Champions League quarter-finals yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Messi opened the scoring at the Nou Camp with an audacious chipped penalty, then restored control in the tie after Lyon had pulled a goal back to make it 2-1, notching a decisive third goal after a trademark dazzling run to shake off four defenders.
The Argentinian, who at the start of the season promised to "do everything to bring that beautiful trophy back to the Nou Camp", tore through Lyon's backline twice more to tee up further goals for Gerard Pique and Ousmane Dembele.
"We are all psyched up for the Champions League and so is Leo. He produced an outstanding performance tonight, he was incredible," said Valverde.
Lyon coach Genesio added: "Tonight, Messi was in Champions League mode. He's a genius and can do things that nobody else can. Sometimes he is just unstoppable."
Messi had seen his record of eight hat-tricks in the Champions League equalled by Cristiano Ronaldo a day earlier in Juventus' 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid.
The 31-year-old began the game with serious intent, forcing Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes to beat away a thumping shot in the opening minutes.
He combined fluidly with strike partner Luis Suarez and nearly put the game to bed at the start of the second half, when he beat Lyon substitute goalkeeper Mathieu Gorgelin, but saw his shot cleared off the goalline.
He had two opportunities to match Ronaldo and complete a treble as Lyon continued to crumble, but chose instead to set up Pique and Dembele.
"We went out to take the game to them from the very start, we moved the ball quickly and we were at our very best," Messi said.
The five-time World Player of the Year has not won the Champions League since 2015, while Ronaldo has claimed it four times in the last five seasons with Real and is eyeing another one with Juventus this campaign.
"What Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus did was unbelievable. I thought Atletico would be stronger, but Juve walked all over them and Cristiano had a magical night," Messi said of his long-time rival for the claim of being the world's best player.
"But every team left are difficult, so let's see who we get next."
The talk has been of a changing of the guard, after Real Madrid's European hegemony was ended by Ajax Amsterdam, and a new era, with Spain having only one side in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2010.
Barcelona are in the draw for the last eight as the sole Spanish representative, along with Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Porto and Ajax.
The last time Spain had only one team left at this stage was 2010 and, after defeats for Atletico and Real Madrid, it was up to Barca to avert a first Spanish blackout since 2005.
Certainly, Barcelona will be among the two or three opponents that the other clubs will be keenest to avoid - with only Manchester City and perhaps Juventus, because of Ronaldo, carrying the same sense of power and momentum.
Messi and Ronaldo remain constant, the former now on 108 goals in the competition, behind the latter's imperious 124.
Each still has the power to settle a tie on their own and those most ardent in the debate about who is greater might be hoping for a Barcelona-Juventus showdown when the draw for the quarter-finals is made tonight at Uefa's Nyon headquarters in Switzerland.
"Big players like Leo and Cristiano, they give you so much," said Barcelona defender Pique.
"Not just in results. Having Leo on your team makes you feel like you can face anything." - AFP, REUTERS