It has now reached the stage where we’ve run out of ways to say that we’ve run out of ways to say that Lionel Messi is an impossibly brilliant footballer. Barely a week goes by without another piece of supporting evidence emerging, be it a sinuous dribble, a pinpoint pass or a trademark dinked finish. “He plays a game,” the former Barcelona forward and World Cup top scorer Gary Lineker once said, “with which we are not familiar.”
The summer of 2008 was a significant one for both Messi and Barcelona. After five seasons at the helm, Frank Rijkaard departed Camp Nou following a campaign in which the Blaugrana won nothing and finished third in La Liga, 10 points behind runners-up Villarreal and 18 adrift of champions Real Madrid. The Dutchman’s exit had seemed inevitable even midway through 2007/08, with the club’s hierarchy starting their search for a successor at the turn of the year.
In many ways, Jose Mourinho was the outstanding candidate. A UEFA Cup and Champions League winner with Porto, the Portuguese had been out of work since the previous September having recently guided Chelsea to their first two top-flight titles since 1955. He had worked at Barcelona under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal between 1996 and 2000, and was thought to be interested in a return.
It wasn’t all positive, though. Sporting director Txiki Begiristain and vice-president Marc Ingla met Mourinho in Lisbon, where the then-45-year-old delivered a 27-page power-point presentation detailing how he would lift the malaise around Camp Nou. His intellect, enthusiasm and football knowledge couldn’t be questioned, yet both board members still had their concerns.
“There was one moment when I said to him, ‘Jose, the problem we have with you is that you push the media too much,” Ingla later recalled. “There is too much aggression. The coach is the image of the club. Three times a week, talking to the media for an hour, talking for the club. You cannot start fires everywhere, because this is against our style’.
“The summary of my visit to Jose Mourinho is that he can be pleasant, he can be a charming guy. I had fun with him and then Txiki came a bit later for us to listen to the football ideas. Mourinho was renowned to be No.1 and he was first class at pitching himself – but he wouldn’t listen.”
In the end Barcelona promoted from within, handing the reins to B team boss Pep Guardiola. Many felt he was too inexperienced for such a high-pressure role, but hearty slices of humble pie were distributed to the doubters after the former midfielder won an unprecedented treble of La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey in his debut campaign.
One of Guardiola’s first moves upon taking charge was to sell Ronaldinho, whose increasing fondness for certain extracurricular activities made him a potentially negative influence on the 21-year-old Messi. It was a bold call, but Barça would reap the rewards: with the team built around him, the Argentinian scored 38 goals in all competitions – more than double his previous best tally of 17.
Not that it was smooth sailing right from the start. Messi and the rest of his attacking team-mates were largely ineffectual in a shock 1-0 defeat by newly promoted Numancia on the opening day, before Barcelona were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Racing Santander in their next La Liga assignment. Guardiola’s side had hit the ground trudging.
They soon found their feet, though, and by the time of the winter break the Catalans had established an eight-point lead at the summit of the standings. After dispatching of Mallorca in their first match of 2009, attention turned towards the Copa del Rey and a last-16 clash with Atletico Madrid. Messi broke the deadlock in the first leg at the Vicente Calderon, slotting home from 10 yards after an outrageous pass from Dani Alves, before converting a penalty in the 57th minute to double the visitors’ advantage. The Argentinian’s performance in the first hour was impressive enough, but the best was yet to come.
There were 78 minutes and 33 seconds on the clock when Messi collected possession near the right touchline with his back to goal. He turned and, perhaps surprised not to see an opponent immediately in his face, proceeded to slow down to walking pace. He then turned his body side-on and shaped to pass the ball back to Alves, before leaving left-back Mariano Pernia for dead with a stunning drop of the shoulder which allowed him to scamper down the right flank.
There cannot be many more terrifying sights in football than an in-full-flight Messi bearing down on you. That was the situation suddenly facing Atletico centre-half Tomas Ujfalusi, who probably knew deep down that deciding whether to stick or twist was ultimately a futile choice. In the end the substitute backed off until the edge of the penalty area, when he stuck out his right leg in an attempt to take man, ball or both before it was too late.
It didn’t work. Messi pushed the ball past him with disarming ease, entering the penalty area and affording himself a clear sight of goal for the first time. The Argentinian is nothing if not patient, though, and he decided to first eliminate Luis Perea from the equation with a lightning quick sidestep before pulling the trigger. It was a remarkable run and, once Messi had done the inevitable and introduced ball to net, one which was destined to be replayed time and time again for years to come.
That’s how it should have happened anyway. Instead, after 11 touches and 13 seconds, Messi slammed his shot against the crossbar, stooping to put his hands on his knees as he watched the ball cannon clear of danger. Atletico had escaped conceding a third – until Messi completed his hat-trick soon after, that is – and the watching public had been denied what would have been a sensational solo goal, even by the sky-high standards of Barcelona’s diminutive genius.
“Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him,” Guardiola once said. On a cold January night in 2009, the Atletico Madrid defence heeded his advice.