Neil Humphreys: Why we need Messi more than ever
Unlike cynical rivals, Barca great won't conform or play safe
One pass was enough. One pass lifted the game away from the Nou Camp and carried it into a Spielberg fantasy.
One pass was a reminder of an alien among us, a close encounter of the Lionel Messi kind.
In the 20th minute of Barcelona's stroll past Chelsea, he saw an unidentified flying object.
No one else spotted it because it didn't exist beyond the outer reaches of Messi's mind. But the Argentinian saw it nonetheless, a shape beyond his peripheral vision, a shape that looked a lot like Ousmane Dembele.
The galloping Frenchman wasn't in the frame, any frame. Dozens of cameras failed to track his run from the halfway line because he was too far away.
A camera never lies. Its lens can't find what isn't there.
But Messi had already glimpsed the future. He had plotted the pass. He just had to wait for everyone else to catch up.
His body feint took four Chelsea players one way. His pass sent them in the opposite direction.
He opened his body to face Luis Suarez, but slipped the ball backwards, away from the crowd and towards nothing. The space was empty.
And then, Chelsea defenders, TV cameramen and a global audience saw, for the first time, the image that had only previously existed in Messi's mind.
Dembele dashed into frame and smashed a strike into the top corner.
No one saw him coming. No one.
Messi skipped away in celebration, football's peerless Pied Piper, always one step ahead of the children around him.
How did he see a pass that wasn't there? How did he find a teammate who wasn't there?
They are futile queries, meaningless exercises, like wondering how Stephen Hawking saw black holes differently to everyone else, the questions are less important than the answers.
He just can. So sit back and marvel at a genius at work. Be grateful that such mavericks graced our lifetime.
And yet, for some people, boring people if truth be told, that can never be enough. There must be qualifiers and caveats, fruitless comparisons about this Argentine master and that Real Madrid colossus.
There must be statistics, endless statistics, as if we're measuring the output of an IT programmer with a penchant for wearing coffee-stained shirts.
Messi scored three times across two legs against Chelsea, a side he'd never previously scored against.
His first goal in the Nou Camp was the fastest of his career, knocked in after two minutes and eight seconds.
He's now reached a century in the Champions League alone.
Yes, the numbers are insane, but slightly crass in Messi's case, like counting the number of paintbrushes da Vinci used to finish Mona Lisa's portrait.
At some point, the mechanics must give way to the artistry. Just admire the end product. Revel in its rare perfection and be reminded why we put up with such an exasperating game in the first place.
It's for Messi's moments.
Every improvised tidbit, every no-look pass, cheeky finish, body twist and scampering dribble are little rewards for enduring a season of parked buses and too many holding midfielders.
After Manchester United's negative display against Sevilla the night before, Messi's gems were like stumbling upon a couple of illuminating exhibits after trudging around the dullest museum.
When he executes an outlandish pass like the one for an invisible Dembele, he mocks the number crunchers.
He pulls off the inexplicable and effectively says, "analyse this." Open the coaching manual and find a pass like that.
But you can't. There isn't one. Messi cannot be defined or pigeonholed. He's way beyond conventional classification now.
Can you imagine Messi being ordered to track back and defend in a Jose Mourinho line-up? Fortunately, we don't have to.
The Argentinian is so much more than the greatest of all time. He's an antidote to the negativity that threatens to overwhelm rival clubs.
After all these years, Messi still insists on making it up as he goes along.