Football

It took Lionel Messi two years and 77 minutes before he finally found a way past Manuel Neuer
It took Lionel Messi two years and 77 minutes before he finally found a way past Manuel Neuer. And it was some strike.

Neuer has been Messi’s tormentor for quite some time and it seemed it would stay like that until the Argentine hitman unleashed a left-footed shot so quickly struck that the World Cup winning goalkeeper was beaten at his near-post.

It was a goal that sparked Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final tie at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, almost punching the Catalans’ ticket to the June 6 final in Berlin.

It’s halfway through the tie but at least the win on the night also helped Barca exact a measure of revenge for a 7-0 aggregate demolition by Bayern at the same stage of Europe’s premier club competition two years ago.

Then, Messi had missed the first leg, a 4-0 rout for the Bavarians at their Allianz Arena, through injury. He returned for the second leg but was unable to inspire a Barca side which slumped to a 3-0 defeat at home.

Neuer had thwarted Messi then and then again at last year’s World Cup final at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana Stadium. That night, Messi was seemingly destined to lead Argentina to their first World Cup title since 1990.

But the German giant of a goalkeeper denied him and in an interview with L’Equipe ahead of Bayern’s meeting with Barca, Neuer had stoked the fire saying he will show Messi “who’s boss” again.

“I have a lot of respect for Messi and for everything that he has achieved. He is very humble,” Neuer had said. “But it’s crucial to show authority when we meet on the pitch and show him who’s boss. I did the same in the World Cup final and this worked out pretty well.”

It was working out pretty well for him but just moments after Bayern tweeted “Neuer the wall”, Messi broke through it.

After a Bayern counter-attack broke down, Dani Alves found Messi. The Argentine took a couple of steps, dropped a shoulder, gave Neuer the eyes he was going to shoot towards the far-post but instead hit a low shot at the near-post. Neuer only moved after the ball had passed him.

Bayern coach Pep Guardiola, the former Barca player who spent four trophy-laden years as manager of the club between 2008-2012, was making his first return to the club since leaving. He responded immediately by bringing on Mario Goetze.

Goetze was the man who struck that sensational extra-time winner for Germany in Rio, stealing the headlines from Messi. Guardiola probably wanted him to do the same but this was Messi’s night and he struck again three minutes later to ad to the misery of his former mentor.

This time, it was a stroke of genius. A quick turn sent Jerome Boateng tumbling to the ground and Messi gleefully dinked the ball over Neuer and into the net.

Then in added time, his pass sent Neymar clean through and the Brazilian nutmegged the Bayern goalkeeper to put Barca well and truly in command of the tie.

Tributes came pouring in for Messi. Former Barca striker Patrick Kluivert tweeted he was “from a different planet” while former Barca winger Luis Garcia said “you just can’t stop him”.

But no one probably summed up Messi’s majestic performance better than his former team-mate Thierry Henry, who was part of the Barca side which won the treble in 2009.

“Lionel Messi is just superb,” he said on Sky Sports. “How many times are we going to find ourselves being in that situation and talking about him? He wanted to win that game and he did it again.”

Published in Dawn

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