Neil Humphreys: Why Champions League stars must go for broke
One-legged contests favour artistes like Messi and de Bruyne
There is no tomorrow. The Champions League offers no second chances. The superstars shine or they go home.
Thanks to Covid-19, the condensed format has unshackled football's finest. Lionel Messi and Kevin de Bruyne's artistic objectives could not be clearer.
Paint pretty pictures quickly or the canvases get smashed.
It's a liberating move and one that should be considered a permanent one, if only the financial benefits of two-legged contests didn't trump all other concerns.
But the perpetual gloom of the coronavirus has at least offered a trivial bright spot. The Champions League will throw up a classic or two as the tournament's leading maestros work against that ticking clock.
Far too often, the traditional two-legged format of the knockout stages has been too cerebral for its own good, with Pep Guardiola overthinking his formations until his brain hurt.
By his own admission, Guardiola has allowed the head to rule his heart too often at Manchester City, overly pondering home and away strategies.
For a manager revered for his attacking philosophy, he played the fussy school teacher. He didn't really let his kids play with their toys.
In the Champions League, Guardiola's greatest opponent has been himself, constantly second-guessing his own tactics and applying too many brakes.
Against Real Madrid last week, City went for broke out of necessity and de Bruyne shattered the Spanish side's lingering hopes in Europe.
The Belgian has rarely been better, certainly not in the Champions League. At 29, de Bruyne knows his peak is approaching. He also knows that this messy, delayed campaign represents his club's best chance of winning the trophy.
The champions of England, Spain and Italy are already out.
Sunday morning's (Singapore time) tie against Lyon is no sure thing, but the French side are among the easier opponents left.
The French league was abandoned back in March. Lyon have played just twice in the past five months. In terms of match fitness, de Bruyne's English Premier League battlers have an obvious edge.
But the Belgian's unique influence is critical in a unique contest. Against Real, he fashioned nine chances - the most anyone has managed against the La Liga champions since 2003.
Like Lionel Messi at Barcelona, the unusual circumstances suit the masters of their respective universes.
Sudden-death contests breathe life into creative performers. Cynical tactics are now less important than superior talent.
Ordinarily, team effort, collective spirit and a boisterous, intimidating crowd can have a greater impact in the knockout stages, particularly in the second legs. Most of that has gone now.
MOMENT OF MAGIC
Like the World Cup, European Championship or Copa America, the one-off game tends to be an exhibition for one-off artistes because a moment of magic wins the day.
There are no comebacks, no opportunities for a tactical masterstroke in the second leg or for plucky underdogs to park buses.
Messi has thrived in these conditions for years, for both club and country.
Watching him conjure an Argentine winner from literally nothing against Iran at the 2014 World Cup was to witness a genius in full command of his skill set.
Messi knows his incomparable value. He isn't interested in away-goal permutations or defending early leads. He's in the business of winning singular contests on his own.
Two-legged ties, on the other hand, are usually in the lap of the gods. But those gods are gone now. There is only Messi.
Both he and Robert Lewandowski will be aware of their special responsibilities when Barca and Bayern Munich meet on Saturday morning.
Messi has scored 31 times in 43 games across all competitions this season. Lewandowski has knocked in a ridiculous 53 goals in 44 matches. But the Poland striker doesn't get anywhere near Messi's assists (Messi has 26 to Lewandowski's eight).
Along with de Bruyne, the trio are the standout names left in the competition, but the nature of the knockout stages favours the mavericks.
De Bruyne is in marginally better form, but Messi's career has been built on conjuring match-winners in tense, close encounters.
Either way, the one-legged affairs should hopefully turn the conventional, Darwinist aspect of the knockout stages upside down. The Champions League is no longer about the survival of the fittest, but the showmanship of the greatest.
De Bruyne and Messi, the stage is yours. For one night only.
REMAINING QUARTER-FINALS FIXTURES
Tomorrow, 3am (S'pore time):
- RB Leipzig v Atletico Madrid
- Barcelona v Bayern Munich
- Manchester City v Lyon