Messi a man on a mission to bring the Champions League back to Barcelona


There was no Luis Suarez, no Samuel Umtiti and no Sergi Roberto in Barcelona’s starting line-up in Eindhoven but Lionel Messi was there and, on Wednesday night, he ensured his side will progress to the Champions League last 16 as group winners.

Hosts PSV put up more than a fight, hitting the woodwork three times and creating several more chances, but Messi was the difference between the two teams, driving the Catalans to a 2-1 victory at the Philips Stadium.

In his first outing as Barca’s new captain, the Argentine star, hurt by Real Madrid’s dominance in the Champions League, delivered a rousing speech at the start of the season in which he stated his team’s primary goal was to reclaim the trophy, and he is seemingly on a one-man mission to make that happen.

With Suarez out for two weeks, Messi was deployed as Barcelona’s central striker against PSV, with Philippe Coutinho to his left and Ousmane Dembele to his right.

The No.10 has not featured in the middle of the attack since the start of the Luis Enrique era, before he switched places with Suarez. 

Coincidentally, that change first happened on a Champions League night in the Netherlands, against Ajax in November 2014.

In the four years since, Messi has almost always been used on the right flank, although he has, of course, always retained a license to roam.

Back in a role which must have felt a little unfamiliar at the start, it took time for Messi to find his way into the game, which also meant it took time for Barca to find theirs. 

Both Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic were guilty of some awful passes early on that could have got the Catalans into trouble.

Defensive midfielder Busquets was lucky not to earn a booking for a cynical foul on Hirving Lozano, while Gaston Pereiro hit the post for the hosts after Rakitic gave the ball away.

De Jong headed against the bar just before half-time and Denzel Dumfries struck the post on the rebound. Even though the Catalans had begun to create openings of their own, they were lucky to go in level at the break.

But the longer the half went on, the closer Messi got to finding his rhythm. He drew two saves from Jeroen Zoet, which were warnings to the goalkeeper that he had found his range.

And in the 61st minute Messi broke the deadlock brilliantly, with one of the goals of the tournament so far.

Picking the ball up in midfield, Messi drove forward and found Dembele, before running beyond the Frenchman, who slipped the ball back to him.

Now in the box, Messi looked for goal and even though he was crowded out by defenders, launched the ball into the top corner at the near post, when it seemed more obvious to aim for the far stick, stunning Zoet with his unlikely effort.

It was his 106th goal for Barcelona in the competition, the most scored by any player for any one club, overtaking Cristiano Ronaldo’s total of 105 for Real Madrid.

And Messi also created Barca’s second, a clever free-kick which Gerard Pique turned home, again catching the defence out with a move you suspect was honed on the training ground.

De Jong eventually got the goal which he and PSV deserved but Barcelona held on and will be in the last 16 yet again, as group winners for the 12th season running.

Of course, it is in the months to come that Messi’s determination to win will be put to the test, but the Argentine is in the kind of form that could drive Barcelona all the way to the final in Madrid next June.

Barca will be hoping to have all of their top players fully fit and firing during the second half of the season but, as Messi proved in Eindhoven once again, as long as he stays fit, they will have every chance of achieving the captain’s primary goal.

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