Lionel Messi weighed in with a hat-trick as Barcelona won 4-0 against a Manchester City side made to pay for defensive lapses in the Group C summit meeting at Camp Nou.
There had been nothing between the teams until Fernandinho slipped 17 minutes in, several other City players hesitated, and Messi profited to round Claudio Bravo and score. Eight minutes into the second half came another lapse, ex-Blaugrana Bravo fluffing a clearance and promptly handling outside his area to see red.
The visitors were quickly punished by Messi’s unerring low finish. It was all so frustrating for Josep Guardiola, given the first-half encouragement offered by chances for İlkay Gündoğan and John Stones.
Yet by the time Messi’s hat-trick goal, laid on by Luis Suárez, and Neymar’s electric fourth had confirmed Barça’s triumph, the hosts stood five points clear of City – injuries to Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué, Jérémy Mathieu’s sending-off, and Neymar’s penalty miss all consigned to memory.
Key player: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
City’s coach talked eloquently about this being a test he’d rather have had in a year’s time – when he had spent more hours on the training pitch, perhaps when he had resculpted his squad. Even so, he called it “a good test against the best”. He was referring to Barça the team but, in the end, he may as well have namechecked Messi instead. Yes, the Argentinian enjoyed some fortune in that Fernandinho fell over for the opener, but firstly Messi was predatorily sharp about reacting to the opportunity and then cold-blooded about drawing a dive out of Bravo.
Again for the second goal – instant punishment for the merest error in City’s ranks, allied to precision finishing. And the hat-trick? Served on a plate by his ‘domestique’ Suárez. Not since 2012 has Messi been UEFA Champions League top scorer outright. He is on his way.
Lady luck laughs last
How’s your luck? With Alba lasting just ten minutes before trudging off disconsolately, followed by the remarkable sight of David Silva, smallest man on the pitch, injuring his great mate Gerard Piqué, it really felt that fate had nothing but a custard pie in wait for Barcelona. Instead, within a couple of dramatic minutes, Bravo got sent off and, with the substitution to cover his red card still being prepared, Pablo Zabaleta collapsed with nobody around him and needed replacing. Two brilliantly skilled, scientifically prepared elite football teams … and lady luck has the last laugh. Pity.
No mercy from Messi
Guardiola will require all his natural stoicism on the journey home. He is the coach who electrified Messi’s career and it was a wholly symbiotic relationship – greatness feeding greatness. But all good things come to an end and when the Catalan moved on, he often stated that he didn’t expect to coach a better footballer in his career than Messi. Eventually he came home – for a UEFA Champions League semi-final, as Bayern coach. Messi’s welcome-home present? Two classic goals and an assist in a 13-minute burst. And then this: another treble to make it two heavy defeats, five goals and two assists from the pupil to his old professor. How’s that for gratitude?