When Chris Smalling told FC Barcelona to “bring it on” in the build-up to the Champions League quarter-final first leg at Old Trafford, Lionel Messi was in a cold, dark room within the confines of the Nou Camp. Plotting and scheming, he knew that a player of Smalling’s stature would be a difficult man to cope with.
Battered and bruised from that first encounter, courtesy of an elbow here and a determined gallop there, Messi knew he was in for a fight in the second leg, given United’s pedigree in coming back from behind.
Cue Messi: The Return, in what was a chastening defeat for Smalling and Manchester United. Messi took them for a merry ride, Phil Jones playing accomplice to Smalling’s act of defiance, his legs twisting in ways you could only see in cartoons.
To call out Barcelona is to call out Messi – the man who had stated at the start of the season that winning the trophy with the pointy ears would be the team’s main priority wouldn’t be stopped.
During the victory in the decisive first leg against Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk learnt that there was no need to say anything beforehand. Saying that Messi is “the best in the world”, or assuring him that your team “will be ready” wouldn’t bend the Catalan side into submission.
In those 90 minutes in the Nou Camp, van Dijk learnt that the Messi you read about courtesy of Sid Lowe’s imaginative wording, and the Messi you face in real life are the same person.
And although there have been different versions of Messi over the last 15 years, the principle remains the same – the team with Messi usually wins.
600 career goals in 683 appearances. 11 goals in the Champions League this season. These days, he doesn’t have to do a lot – he just has to do enough. Here, two goals were enough. A wonderful free-kick from a seemingly improbable central position and distance just in front of Liverpool’s D was enough.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) May 2, 2019
And with this Messi, there is no fixed position – only the greatest player in the world, free to roam and drift and find space and walk, saving him from his defensive duties and releasing him to attack and hurt like a raging bull running across the street.
Yet it was not all doom and gloom for Liverpool. Had they been more clinical in front of goal, we would have been talking about a different game altogether. The game plan was working, yet here we are, dissecting what they could and could not do; why Georginio Wijnaldum was deployed in the false 9 position; why Joe Gomez played instead of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But Liverpool still had van Dijk, the PFA Player of the Year, a glittering symbol of centre back dominance among the current crop, who has made Jurgen Klopp’s team better than they were without him.
There is no shame in losing out to this Barcelona team who, like those before it, needed Messi to be the difference. Maybe Van Dijk was supposed to be play a similar role, but this performance doesn’t take away from the towering presence he has been this season.
He could be forgiven for thinking that Messi was close by when Luis Suarez ran between him and Joel Matip for Barcelona’s first goal, a wonderful example of that razor-sharp striker’s instinct in the box only a few can match.
At that time Liverpool was still in the game, their game plan still intact, looking for that elusive away goal. But it didn’t come. What followed was Messi in the 75th minute and Messi in the 82nd. Two different goals, but the same player executing them.
In both instances, van Dijk watched, unable to stop the inevitable from happening because Messi is the decisive figure, the one-man wrecking ball that fits into this Barcelona team so perfectly no matter who plays, it would be sinful if he ever left.
So much for those comparisons with the best centre backs to have ever done it in England, then. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and John Terry in the same sentence as van Dijk? Not yet. Not with those videos of him calling for help at Messi’s mercy. No, not yet.
So now, we wait for van Dijk’s redemption in the second leg under the floodlights at Anfield, the Kop flooding the air with their rallying cry, spurring the team on even if all seems lost.
Barring some misfortune over the weekend, Messi will play, like he always does – twisting, turning and planning to seize the moment when you least expect it. He is the main man – he always seems to be – and usually there is no need of telling him that, or rallying the troops before the game.
And now, van Dijk knows why.