Having been forced to watch Real Madrid dominate Europe in recent years, Barcelona, after comfortably finishing the job against Manchester United, must continue to sweep aside the best the Premier League can muster or risk wasting potentially the greatest incarnation of the best player of all time.
Everyone around the Nou Camp just seemed far too confident. Fans were all too aware of the fact that United travelled to Spain an inferior proposition, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side hoping to inflict only a second Champions League home defeat on Barcelona in 52 matches.
The banner that greeted the United team was anything but menacing, with the message “walking to glory” either a bad translation, or another example of that nonchalance prevalent around the city ahead of their quarter-final second leg.
Yet, with Real Madrid long dumped out of this season’s competition, and another La Liga title all but sewn up, such confidence is not without foundation, for one reason and one reason only: the greatest player of all time might just be getting even better.
It hasn’t happened for Barca and Lionel Messi in the Champions League since their 2015 triumph, with Messi failing to score in both legs of each quarter-final tie in those three seasons since as Barca failed not make it past the last eight, while their bitterest of rivals went all the way on all three, painful occasions.
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Such a feeling was very much a throwback to the pre-Messi Barcelona era, with Barca winning just one European Cup or Champions League crown in their history, despite breaking world records to bring Diego Maradona to Catalonia, and the late Johan Cruyff moulding one of the greatest footballing teams of all time.
In the same period, Real amassed nine European Cup and Champions League titles, before taking their tally to 13 crowns following their recent incredible run of four Champions League wins in five seasons - something that grates with those who hold Barca dearest.
“I am convinced [Barca] have a better team than Madrid and yet they’ve won four Champions Leagues in five years,” former captain Carlos Puyol said after Real clinched a third-straight Champions League title last May.
“We have a great team and we have Leo… I have no doubt who the best footballer in the world is, but you must take advantage of Leo’s talent in La Liga and in Europe.”
And capitalise they have. This season, with Real very much in decline, Barca, well Messi, has raised his game to astronomical heights, drawing standing ovations from opposition fans mid-match, as he sits atop of every goalscoring chart at home and abroad once more.
After their heroics in Paris, United fans congregating around the usual tourist hotspot of Plaza Reial were in fine voice ahead of the second leg between the two giants, reminiscing about former glories in Barcelona, and dreaming of more to come and, undeterred by the Nou Camp’s meek attempt at intimidation, United started well, with Marcus Rashford hitting the bar inside the first minute.
Even with that hoodoo of 11 Champions League quarter-final legs without a goal hanging over him, though, Messi ended any United hope in a sashay and a blink of an eye, with Ashley Young and Fred in a spin, rifling Barca into a lead they were never going to lose.
Messi’s second was fortunate, but effectively put the tie to bed, and it was party time in the Nou Camp.
Coach Ernesto Valverde certainly seems to have taken heed of Puyol’s rallying cry. Barca are a much more solid side to break down, having conceded just five goals in this season’s Champions League, also allowing a United side that scored five in Juventus and Paris to have just three shots on target over the course of both legs of the quarter final.
By creating that better defensive unit, Valverde has ensured Barca are in positions in games to, just as Puyol indicated, let Messi do his thing. Simple, but oh so effective.
“Messi always gets us out of many troubles, we are lucky to have him,” Valverde said after the match. “We are not going to apologise for having Messi.”
With that base as impenetrable as it has been for some time, Messi has that platform to take his team to the summit of European football once more.
He won’t break any of those incredible goalscoring records of 2011/12, but back then the support party consisted of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. While Arthur and Ivan Rakitic are excellent players in their own right, they do not quite compare to such midfield majesty of Barca’s fabled pairing, meaning Messi, just as he did for the crucial first when United were on top in the Nou Camp, often starts and finishes the moves himself.
And, for that reason, this could be the greatest Messi of all time - without his former sidekicks, Messi has come again, and is primed to bring Real’s crown back to where he feels it belongs.