Mauricio Pochettino certainly called it when, the day before his side met Barcelona at Wembley, the Tottenham manager admitted he could not find a solution for dealing with Lionel Messi and that he just told his players to relish the experience of facing against arguably football’s greatest-ever player.
“I am not going to try to find a solution,” Pochettino said on Tuesday. “I am going to say to the players: ‘Enjoy playing against Messi.’ This is the type of player that you are going to remember. For your ego, it’s a thing that you are going to tell your kids and grandkids.”
Pochettino’s players will not forget the Barcelona captain in a hurry and neither will the 82,137 fans who saw the 31-year-old deliver a masterclass performance, in which he scored twice and orchestrated so much more to inspire Barcelona’s 4-2 victory over Spurs in Group B of the Champions League.
Messi is on a hot streak in the competition: He hit a hat trick in a 4-0 win against PSV Eindhoven on Matchday 1 and, but for the width of a goal post on two occasions in this game, he would have walked off the pitch with four in London.
Nobody disputes the genius he showed for the first time more than a decade ago and has demonstrated consistently since but, after so long at the top and having played more than 800 games, we have to accept that nights like these, when he illuminated Wembley, might be less frequent.
The double strike against Spurs took his all-time Champions League goal tally to 108 — just 13 behind Cristiano Ronaldo — and he has now scored a remarkable 22 goals in 29 appearances against English clubs.
But even if the bulk of his achievements are already written in the history books, he still possesses the magical ability to appear superhuman on a football pitch.
Do not forget that we are talking about the Champions League — the top level of the club game and arguably higher even than the World Cup in terms of depth of quality — yet Messi made Tottenham look like school kids as he mesmerised Pochettino’s players.
He began his trail of destruction in the second minute with a stunning pass to Jordi Alba that fooled Hugo Lloris and led to Philippe Coutinho scoring Barcelona’s first goal of the night. Twenty-six minutes later, Messi produced another moment of brilliance with a cross to Luis Suarez that preceded the 20-yard strike from Ivan Rakitic, which doubled the Spanish champions’ lead.
Having played the role of provider, Messi upped a gear after half-time and began to embark on the mazy, unstoppable dribbles that have defined his career. Spurs could not get near him and he left the watching crowd gasping twice within the space of five minutes as two almost identical efforts struck the same portion of Lloris’s right-hand post.
“[Messi] was unbelievable,” Spurs full-back Kieran Trippier said. “When he’s in that form, he’s magic to watch.”
However, while those moments encapsulated Messi’s individual brilliance, his ruthless streak was showcased shortly afterward when, with the score 2-1, he finished off a move of beauty to restore Barcelona’s two-goal advantage.
The move began when Coutinho burst down the left before the former Liverpool man pulled the ball back across goal. Suarez looked set to hit it at the near post, but instead produced a perfect dummy that left Messi to guide the ball into the corner of the net from six yards.
It was a straightforward chance in the end, but the crispness of Messi’s finish and the pinpoint placement, beyond Lloris’s grasping arm, was the work of a master craftsman.