Paris Saint-Germain fell, Real Madrid fell, Atlético Madrid fell, but Barcelona didn’t. This time there was no surprise, not even really for Lyon who saw Lionel Messi coming again and again, just as they knew they would, but couldn’t prevent him from putting them to the sword.
Bruno Génésio had talked before the game about limiting Messi’s influence and talked after it about a player who, in his words, “is almost impossible to stop at this level of performance and motivation”. By then, the Lyon coach had watched the Argentinian score two and make two, for Ousmane Dembélé and Gerard Piqué, while the hugely impressive Luis Suárez made another for Philippe Coutinho.
The scoreboard said 5-1, so it was perhaps strange to reflect that briefly there had been nerves; at 2-0 down Lyon scored and momentarily made a match of this. “For an hour, we showed we could compete with them: they had a lot of doubts,” Génésio insisted. And yet the Barcelona manager, Ernesto Valverde, was entitled to point out the “feeling of fear of was greater than the number of actual chances they made”, and there is no match for Messi. When he accelerated, reactivating his team, they pulled away once more and ultimately Barcelona eased into the quarter-finals after a fine overall performance.
The pattern had been set early, Messi and Coutinho combining but unable to reach Suárez after two minutes. A minute later, the same three came together again. That time, Anthony Lopes pushed away Messi’s shot; the next time, Ivan Rakitic had his blocked. And although Tanguy Ndombele’s effort skidded just past the post three minutes later, Barcelona were on top, the passing swift and accurate, the pressure applied high, Valverde rightly saying afterwards: “We produced an incredible first half; we could have had a bigger lead.”
Barcelona particularly progressed up the left, where Jordi Alba dashed by on the outside and Coutinho drifted inside, far more involved than of late, his touch assured, teammates close at hand, Suárez especially. Behind them, Sergio Busquets, Arthur and Ivan Rakitic took control and Messi threatened. He found Lopes diving at his feet after 13 minutes and opened the scoring two minutes after that. He had played the pass that led to it, too, Suárez tumbling in the area. The Uruguayan admitted that he had trodden on the defender’s leg and lost his balance, the decision doubtful, but the challenge from Jason Denayer wasn’t exactly subtle. The finish from Messi was: he dinked in a gentle Panenka.
The shot count was rising: it would reach 14 by half-time. Coutinho collided with Lopes who stayed down for three or four minutes, doctors attending to him. He was clearly dazed, but at first chose to continue, and by the time he did depart in tears he had conceded another, Suárez collecting Arthur’s perfect pass and brilliantly shifting his body weight to slip between two defenders to put it on a plate for Coutinho. “The stats will show he didn’t score, because he gave it to Coutinho,” Valverde said, “but he produced a great game; he doesn’t need to score.”
Lyon’s substitute goalkeeper, Mathieu Gorgelin, came on and, like the man he replaced, watched Barcelona come. He made a superb save from Messi when Busquets played him clean through and the second half then began with Messi clipping over him only to see it cleared off the line. At that point, though, Lyon took a step up and this became a contest when a series of loose headers in the Barcelona area ended with Busquets failing to clear. Lucas Tousart controlled on the chest and hit past Marc-André ter Stegen. Nabil Fekir then struck wide and Memphis Depay, on the turn deep inside the Barcelona box, was unable to get clean contact.
But that was when Messi got going again. “Football is about emotions too and one of the fundamental things about him is the feeling he transmits to us, fans and opponents,” Valverde said. One run from deep, done alone, momentum building, acted like a bugle call as Messi, hyperactive now, dragged them back into the game. Two more runs actually ended it. With twelve minutes left, he went at them, turned sharp right, then turned sharp left, back again, a dummy sending Denayer past heading the wrong way and Marcelo slipping on to the floor. As they fell, Messi guided the ball right-footed into the bottom corner.
He wasn’t done yet, either. Another run saw him driving from the halfway line, slowing down, speeding up again and playing the ball to the far post where Piqué slid in to score. And yet another saw him set off one last time, Lyon backing off in fear, and roll it into Dembélé to score the fifth. Spain still has something to say in the Champions League conversation.
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