Lionel Messi vs the Premier League: a brief history of goals, glory - and anguish

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Lionel Messi vs the Premier League: a brief history of goals, glory - and anguish
Lionel Messi vs the Premier League: a brief history of goals, glory - and anguish

Lionel Messi takes on an English club for the first time in three seasons when the fit-again forward lines up for Paris Saint-Germain against Manchester City on Tuesday night. Having scored 26 goals against City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham, including one in each of two finals against United, he will be relishing the opportunity even against his former manager and mentor, Pep Guardiola.

This is his 18th Champions League campaign and the seventh since he last won it with Barcelona. After a difficult start, Premier League opposition have usually brought the best out of him from a teenage debut against Chelsea to the bitter disappointment of defeat at Anfield on his last visit here.

In the beginning...when we were winning

Messi made his first start in the Champions League against an English club in 2006 at the age of 18, the season he signed professional forms with Barcelona and eight months after inspiring Argentina to triumph in the Under-20 World Cup.

He played on the right wing in the Round of 16 away leg victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when Barca fought back from 1-0 down to win 2-1, but only 25 minutes of the 1-1 draw at Camp Nou, hobbling off with a season-ending hamstring tear.

Terry flattens Messi - RUSSELL CHEYNE FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Terry flattens Messi - RUSSELL CHEYNE FOR THE TELEGRAPH

The injury kept him sidelined for two months and though he declared himself fit for the final in Paris, Frank Rijkaard decided not to risk him in the matchday squad, missing the victory over Arsenal in which Barcelona, one of the giants of European football, progressed from winning the same number of European Cups as Aston Villa to levelling with Nottingham Forest.

The following season Messi again came up against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, the third year in succession the two teams had met, this time at the group stage, and played in both the 1-0 away defeat and 2-2 home draw, achieving very little of note by his later standards against Ashley Cole and the constantly covering Claude Makelele.

Yet he managed to fashion two chances with lightning bursts to the byline and perfectly judged passes, the first blazed over by Ronaldinho, the last, at 2-1, stabbed straight at the keeper by Xavi.

Two weeks later Messi broke a metatarsal and was out for three months, returning 10 days before the Round of 16 first leg tie against Liverpool, remembered more for Craig Bellamy’s golf-swing celebration following his goal which came merely hours after reports surfaced of him assaulting his team-mate John Arne Riise in bed with a golf club.

Bellamy’s defiant swagger sadly overshadowed a vital contribution from his team-mate Alvaro Arbeloa who was tasked with hounding Messi out of the game, a thankless assignment he achieved with tenacity and skill as Liverpool knocked out the holders on away goals.

“I was training at Melwood and Rafa came over,” said Arbeloa. “‘Left back’. Left? Marking Messi. I stood looking at him, waiting for him to start laughing. This has to be a joke but I saw he was deadly serious. I thought: ‘madre mia.’ The idea was that I’d be strong on my right when Messi came inside.”

In case anyone was thinking of demeaning Arbeloa’s achievement by pointing to Messi’s rustiness, four days after the second leg the 19-year-old scored a hat-trick against Fabio Capello’s Real Madrid in El Clasico

The next time he came up against an English club, Manchester United in the 2008 semi-final, he had again only recently returned from a hamstring injury which had kept him out for seven games. Messi lasted an hour of the 0-0 draw at Camp Nou and played the entire 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, spending his time whipping over crosses from the right which were effectively dealt with by Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar.

Lionel Messi, Ji-Sung Park, Carlos Tevez - AP
Lionel Messi, Ji-Sung Park, Carlos Tevez - AP

Once more he found a Premier League side’s left-back, Patrice Evra, at the peak of his powers, and, for all his scampering and darting, failed to unlock the inside-right channel on a night that ended Rijkaard’s hopes of winning a trophy for the first time in two years and essentially ended his time at the club.

First Ballon d’Or, first Champions League

During Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge at Barcelona, Messi was simply irrepressible. Selling Deco and Ronaldinho allowed him to recalibrate midfield and attack, ensuring Xavi and Andres Iniesta had more time to probe by introducing Sergio Busquets as a first-team regular in the pivotal role.

Messi scored 38 goals in all competitions but did not manage to break his duck against Chelsea in the semi-final, the second leg of which, their eighth match in five seasons, caused the biggest stink yet.

At Camp Nou in the first leg 0-0 draw, Henry Winter wrote for The Telegraph: “The ball seemed to belong to him. The Nou Camp was a canvas and Messi’s vivid brush strokes were all over it.” Even so Guus Hiddink’s use of the right-footed Bosingwa on the left in the absence of Cole again shut down the inside-right channel and Barcelona kept switching to Thierry Henry down the left.

In the second match, marred and skewed by Tom Henning Ovrebo’s error-strewn performance as referee, Messi pounced on Michael Essien’s wayward pass to roll the ball across the 18-yard line in the 93rd minute. Iniesta met it on the run with his laces, spearing in the equaliser that put them through to the final on away goals. Cue pile-on by the corner flag and Messi left with a dose of stubble rash when mobbed by an exultant Guardiola.

Before the final at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and with the league and cup double already assured, Messi sat out the last three Liga games. At the beginning of May for the 6-2 trouncing of Real Madrid, Guardiola switched him and Samuel Eto’o, moving the Cameroon centre-forward to the right of an attacking trident and deploying Messi as a ‘false nine’. He scored twice and set up another goal.

Guardiola tried it again in the final when Sir Alex Ferguson, in a rare tactical and selection mistake, picked Ryan Giggs as a No 10 and a midfield two of Anderson and Michael Carrick without a ball-winner such as Darren Fletcher, ceded midfield domination almost from the start.

Messi, dazzling in bright blue boots, mesmerising in the dribble and, in the words of Derek Trotter, with “more bounce than Zebedee”, was a constant menace, leaping off the floor when barrelled over to carry on the torment.

His goal, Barcelona’s second in the 2-0 victory and his first against English opposition, was created by a moment of stillness after all the uncontainable, scuttling bursts, stopping before going in then out to peel off Ferdinand and meet Xavi’s cross with a looping header past Van der Sar.

“In the moments that the ball was in the air from Xavi’s cross, I pictured scoring this goal and I thank God it happened. It was such an important goal in every sense: for the team, for the way the final was turning in our favour and for me, too,” he said 10 years later. “It’s still one of my favourite goals.”

Toppermost of the poppermost

Another year, another English club, this time Arsenal, who would become easily his favourite opponents, at the quarter-final stage in 2009-10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both Barcelona goals in the 2-2 draw at the Emirates where Messi was thwarted twice by superb Manuel Almunia saves as Arsenal fought back from 2-0 down.

At Camp Nou, still ostensibly on the right despite Ibrahimovic’s absence with injury, but actually here there and everywhere, and sporting a haircut that made him a dead ringer for Brigit Forsyth’s Thelma Ferris from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, he ran riot.

Responding to Nicklas Bendtner’s shock opening goal, he bagged a first-half hat-trick, beginning with a left-foot shot from 18 yards that took a slight deflection to diddle Almunia, followed by a dink over the keeper from the right of the box and an even better chip on the run over the keeper from the left of the D.

In the second half he scored the fourth, the best of the lot, with a slaloming run down the inside-left channel leaving Arsenal’s defenders tottering to stay upright like new-born foals and then nutmegged the keeper with the rebound once Almunia had kept the initial shot out with his feet.

It was Arsenal again in 2010-11, a meeting in the last 16, ruined for the Gunners by Massimo Busacca’s preposterous decision to give Robin van Persie a second yellow card for having a shot at goal when he had blown his whistle. Ignoring the cacophony and asserting that van Persie had definitely heard the blast of his Acme Thunderer, the Swiss official, now Fifa’s head of referee development, sent the Arsenal striker off.

Messi had created Barcelona’s goal in their 1-2 defeat at the Emirates that gave Arsenal hope by catching Gael Clichy behind the rest of the offside trap when he drilled a diagonal pass with his left foot from the right to put David Villa clean through. In the second leg, before Arsenal had been reduced to 10 men, he scored in first-half stoppage time with an outrageous display of his immaculate control, stunning Iniesta’s spooned pass, flicking it up with a second touch of his left big toe, hurdling the goalie’s leg and then hooking a volley into the net.

In a barnstorming second half, Busquets’ own goal put Arsenal ahead on aggregate, Van Persie was dismissed and Xavi levelled the tie. Messi put them through with his second of the night, converting a 71st-minute penalty.

Barcelona’s defence in 2009-10 had been stymied by Mourinho’s Inter but a year on Messi’s two goals at the Bernabeu knocked out his new side, Real Madrid, in the semi-final to book a trip to Wembley for a reunion with Manchester United, the signature game for him and the whole Guardiola Barcelona project.

All night Messi was inventive, relentless, elegant, the closest we have seen on a football field to encompassing the Muhammad Ali ideal of floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. Barcelona had 19 attempts on goal and in the first half alone Messi nutmegged four players. He scored the second in the 3-1 victory, picking up the ball 35 yards out and exploiting Evra’s hesitation to sweep a left-footed daisycutter past Van der Sar.

There was more than a hint of frenzy in his celebration, of real little-man, Gordon Strachan-hoarding-vaulting anger as he beat his chest in front of the Barca end. He also had a hand in the third, jitterbugging in from the right before Villa applied the coup de grace.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his teams second goal - ACTION IMAGES
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his teams second goal - ACTION IMAGES

The fall and rise

Pep Guardiola’s quest to finish his four-year spell as Barcelona manager with a third Champions League was derailed in the semi-finals by Chelsea and an oddly off-kilter performance from Messi. Playing through the middle, he was subdued at Stamford Bridge by a midfield trio of Ramires, Raul Meireles and the outstanding John Obi Mikel.

Cole, an old nemesis, did a fine number on Dani Alves as well, cutting out supply from the right and Messi, rattled, gave away the ball that led to Didier Drogba’s winner in the 1-0 victory.

A persistent threat in the second game, he teed up Iniesta to make it 2-0 with a perfect, threaded pass but at 2-1 up and still losing on away goals, he smashed his penalty into the cross bar, hit the post after a brilliant Cech save, shot into the side-netting and engaged in some posturing and chest-prodding with Frank Lampard.

When Fernando Torres sealed Chelsea’s victory on aggregate with the goal that inspired Gary Neville to a piercing, joyous shriek, Messi completed eight goalless appearances against Chelsea in six years.

Still playing centrally in 2013-14, Messi scored the first from the penalty spot in the 2-0 Round of 16 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad after Martin Demichelis had brought him down with a daft tackle that began outside the box and provided its own encore inside it.

In Catalunya, he was imperious, demolishing criticism that he was enduring his worst season, by drifting, darting, even tracking back to rob Aguero and then chipping Joe Hart for the first goal in a 2-1 win.

Martin Demichelis of Manchester City fouls Lionel Messi of Barcelona to concede a penalty and is subsequently sent off during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 - GETTY IMAGES
Martin Demichelis of Manchester City fouls Lionel Messi of Barcelona to concede a penalty and is subsequently sent off during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 - GETTY IMAGES

Barcelona’s signing of Luis Suarez the next summer allowed Messi to move back to the right and by the time they faced Manuel Pellegrini’s team in the last 16 for a second season in succession, the MSN partnership was in majestic form following Suarez’s return from his third biting ban.

In the first half, so slick was his movement, so breathtaking his dribbling that the Etihad crowd applauded him. Suarez scored both away goals in the 2-1 victory, a result that was tempered by Hart saving Messi’s injury-time penalty.

He made amends by carving out Ivan Rakitic’s goal in the 1-0 win at Camp Nou and beating out a tattoo of passes with Iniesta that all but hypnotised City’s defence. In Berlin in June, Messi lifted his third and to date last European Cup.

The encore

In a third meeting with Arsenal in 2015-16, Messi was majestic, scoring twice at the Emirates and once at Camp Nou in a 5-1 aggregate victory.

Some devotees have likened the dexterity of Messi’s left foot to a mortal’s hands, and it was never more appropriate than when he scored at home with a flick over David Ospina in a movement of his left leg like Dave Allen insouciantly brushing ash off his trouser leg. For the second time in three seasons, however, Atletico Madrid eliminated Barcelona at the quarter-final stage.

Guardiola’s first reunion as Manchester City manager, with a now blond and bearded Messi, ended in a 4-0 defeat with Barcelona’s No 10 scoring a hat-trick by virtue of assists from Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, rounding the keeper after the first gift, smearing a shot into the bottom left corner thanks to the second and cushioning a left-foot finish for the third, his 16th in 15 games against English clubs.

But none had come against Chelsea, an anomaly he rectified the following year with a goal in the 1-1 draw in the last 16 at Stamford Bridge and two in the 3-0 victory in Spain.

The first was down to Iniesta snaffling the ball from a dozing Andreas Christensen and cueing up Messi to smash home a shot from the spot and the two in Spain came from similar scavenging by Suarez to mug Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta and give the ball to Messi to finish with right and left-foot shots respectively.

In 2018-19 he made three farewell trips to England with Barcelona, torturing Tottenham with two goals, a part in the other two and two strikes of the post in the 4-2 victory when his legs and the ball were joined in a whirlwind that blew Spurs apart. On his first club visit back to Wembley since the 2011 final, he made genius seem everyday.

In the spring he returned to Old Trafford and captained the side to a 1-0 victory in the quarter-final then preyed on mistakes by Ashley Young, Fred and David De Gea to twist Phil Jones’ blood and score the first two goals in the 3-0 win.

His reward? A semi-final against Liverpool for his first match against them for 12 years. At Camp Nou he displayed his predatory instincts by trapping a rebound from Suarez’s shot on his chest and walking the ball into the goal, and grabbing a second with a blistering whip of a free-kick eight minutes from time.

Taking a 3-0 lead to Anfield with the world’s best player in the year of his sixth Ballon d’Or, what could possibly go wrong? He was still big, it was Barcelona that got small...as he will try to prove against City and throughout this season.

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