Barca's Miracle II resting on Messi's shoulders
Barca's only hope of a miraculous comeback is a masterclass from ageing wizard
- Juventus lead 3-0 from first leg
Lionel Messi is frustrated, fuming and perhaps even apoplectic.
Depending on the news source, Barcelona's greatest player of all time is either at an all-time low or mildly irritated.
Either way, the little genius must sense that the jig is up. The curtain is coming down on another Champions League campaign, thanks to the inadequacies of substandard teammates.
In the first leg of the quarter-final against Juventus, he was a lost master among misfits; neglected, jaded and peripheral.
Across the pitch, he peered through the looking glass and glimpsed the past.
He saw himself a decade ago, a younger, hip-swinging, free-scoring Argentinian.
Paulo Dybala looked a lot like the man Messi used to be and still can be when the mood takes him.
At the weekend, the 29-year-old scored twice to beat Real Sociedad in a scruffy 3-2 La Liga victory; a game that epitomised Messi's current, thankless role.
Once he was the first among near equals. Now he's the torchbearer for a team of slowing legends, like football's Harlem Globetrotters wheezing against the dying of the light.
I see someone who doesn’t appear to be enjoying the team performances or the style of play. Barcelona are too weak, they don’t defend from the front and the more they track back, the worse they defend.Spanish football expert Guillem Balague
Only Messi has forged a career from making miracles to order. Only Messi realistically stands between Juve and safe passage to the Champions League semi-finals tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Comparisons to the previous miracle at the Nou Camp are as naive as they are facile. The steely titans from Turin are not the pipsqueaks from Paris.
In the previous round, Paris Saint-Germain displayed the mental fragility of four-year-olds attending their first day at kindergarten.
BARCA'S LOSS, JUVE'S GAIN
Juve also boast the most durable back five in the competion. Indeed Barca's loss has literally been the Italian side's gain, with Dani Alves slotting in comfortably at right back, leaving a chasm in the Spanish line-up.
The Catalan giants' enfeebled right side convinced Luis Enrique to field a back three in the first leg and persuade a reluctant Sergi Roberto to offer defensive support.
The move was an unmitigated disaster, with Mario Mandzukic and Dybala free to frolic along Juventus' inside left.
Barca's defence is as weak as Juve's is strong; a patched-up, ineffective gang of veterans and second-stringers.
When Pep Guardiola's Barcelona gained possession, they played keepball until the opponent's disbelieving goalkeeper saw the net bulge behind him.
When Enrique's Barcelona gain possession, they give the ball to Messi and hope for the best.
Neymar returns to the side for the Champions League clash, the obvious heir apparent, and Luis Suarez provides a malignant presence, but Messi remains the miracle-maker in chief.
In the first leg, the Argentinian delivered a couple of sublime passes but, otherwise, drifted towards irrelevance, taking any chance of a decent Barca result with him. His fury at the ineptitude of others was palpable.
Messi had good reason to be angry at the shambles unfolding over his shoulder.
His talent and legacy didn't deserve a second humiliation in as many Champions League ties.
He returned with a degree of vengeance against Real Sociedad, his brace leaving him just two shy of an astounding 500 Barcelona goals.
The milestone will be duly reached in a matter of weeks, but Messi's comicbook career dictates that the magical number should come against Juventus.
Besides, his campaign comes with a sense of urgency. In June, he will join Andres Iniesta, Suarez, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique and the hapless Jeremy Mathieu in the club of thirty-somethings.
Luis Enrique is off after the season. Others will follow as the decade's finest football party winds down. The music must stop in the end, even for the greatest dancers.
If Messi is as angry as reports suggests, it's because he knows the toughest opponent isn't Juventus. It's time.
He isn't a self-sculpted colossus to rival Cristiano Ronaldo. His impish style and incomparable foot-speed come with a sell-by date, one that is being accelerated by the defensive blunders of others.
He cannot rely on his teammates against Juve. Only Messi can deny the inevitable by delivering one of those old masterclasses.
He needs the game of his life to further elevate the career of our lifetime.