CAMP NOU, BARCELONA — There was a video doing the rounds on the internet recently of Lionel Messi performing kick-ups toying with his pet dog Hulk, sending the enthusiastic Mastiff one way and then the other over and again. The lumbering dog is loving it: mouth wide open, tongue lolling out, leaping one way and the other on the lush turf, chasing his master, who is juggling the ball bare-footed, shirt off, wearing only a pair of red shorts.
The short clip really captures what Messi did to Phil Jones last night. A lovable and playful act with a pet dog: utterly brutal and devastating in a Champions League quarter-final second leg with the whole world watching.
Highlights of Lionel Messi v Phil Jones at the Nou Camp: pic.twitter.com/YWkSFxc8iK
— Sam Cunningham (@samcunningham) April 16, 2019
Has there been a bigger mismatch between two opponents? It was not just the two goals Messi scored and the third he played a major role in, for which Jones was by no means the only one at fault for them all (far from it). Shortly before half-time, Jones dashed out of defence and tried to pressure the Argentinian on halfway. It was like trying to tackle water: Messi whirlpooled around him, sprinted full pelt and cut inside and outside Jones twice more, before instigating a move which resulted in a brilliant David de Gea save.
It was like watching unfurl one of those early Anthony Joshua fights when they wheel out a has-been with 10 defeats in their last 10 —Jones, fittingly, had a bandage around his head last night, only just patched up from the last bout.
Well into his retirement when the grandkids are playing at Old Trafford, the United defender will still be having flashbacks of Barcelona 2019 and require ushering into the nearest chair with a glass of water to calm the rising panic.
Bright start, burned out
Moments before kick-off, the Barcelona supporters spread a huge banner across one stand which read: “WALKING TO GLORY.” It was supposed to mean something along the lines of on the way to success only maybe it was an iffy Google Translate job because it came across more like this is going to be a walkover.
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Manchester United could not, ironically, have started at more of a sprint. From kick-off, Barcelona had not touched the ball before Marcus Rashford squeezed into their penalty area and struck the top of the crossbar with an effort. Soon after, Scott McTominay — rewarded for his excellence in the first leg with a start in Spain — fluffed another wide, from inside the box. And that was it, really, from them. All puffed out in the first round, when Messi, had barely got going.
Firstly, what was Ashley Young thinking with the mistake which led to Messi’s first? Johan Cruyff will be wincing from the heavens — sat next to a seat reserved for Messi, no doubt — at how badly United’s left-back emulated his famous turn, placing the ball at the feet of Barcelona’s No 10. What Messi did next was astonishing.
It was claimed the first ever image of a blackhole was captured a week ago, yet what scientists did not realise is that Messi has one on the end of each leg, which are photographed several times a week. When Messi is dribbling, nothing can escape their gravitational pull.
Having gained possession from Young, Messi popped the ball through Fred’s legs, ran at Jones who merely stumbled on the spot, so Messi, the United sea seemingly parting before him, curled the ball around Chris Smalling and into the bottom left corner.
The rhythmic chant of “Meeeessi! Meeeessi! Meeeessi!” went around the Nou Camp, like an ancient tribe sacrificing a lamb to their gods in the hope of a bigger harvest next year. It has worked in Barcelona for the past 15 summers.
For all Messi’s greatness, the second was a major error from De Gea. Again, Messi won the ball near to United’s penalty area and ran at goal and again found Jones in his way. The defender got nowhere near — stumbling again — as Messi went on his ‘weaker’ right foot — weaker only fractionally than perfection — and shot low again, to the opposite corner. De Gea dived routinely, but the ball squirmed through the curve between his arm and torso.
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That was the tie over, by 20 minutes, after two Messi goals in 240 seconds. Well before Philippe Coutinho added the third just after the hour. Messi swung a ball from halfway out left and Jordi Alba touched it into Coutinho, who curled the ball into the top right corner.
In the end, United had made a dog’s dinner of the second leg, and Barcelona walked to glory.