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Manchester United defence proves no match for Messi’s footballing third eye | Barney Ronay | Football

It is the sign of a truly great player: even when you beat him, stifle him, beat him back for an hour, he still somehow ends up winning the day. There was a degree of amusement before this Champions League quarter-final first leg at Chris Smalling’s suggestion he was looking forward to facing Lionel Messi; that the greatest club footballer in the history of the game should “bring it on”. Oh, Chris. Don’t. Please. No. Chris. Stop it.

But really, what else was Smalling supposed to say? How is he supposed to approach this? Messi does not operate to the usual rules, he is not an opponent in the usual sense. When the hour strikes Messi o’clock there is no sensible form of preparation, no tactical prep that can lessen his impact. You are simply an algorithm in his game, another zombie in his shoot-em-up.

And yet, for 30 minutes either side of half-time Manchester United did bring it, did drag Messi back. In the process Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team were rewarded with arguably Messi’s most ineffective performance in England since he was a pup being kicked by Chelsea.

The only problem being, this is an incredibly high bar. Even within what was a quiet game Messi still managed to play a major role in all-but deciding this tie with 28 minutes gone.

The key moment arrived with 12 minutes gone. Old Trafford had been a boisterous place as Luis Suárez kicked off, those huge craning corrugated stands rumbling with gusts of noise, cheers, songs from the Stretford End.

Messi got his first touch after three minutes of Barcelona possession into the game, slipping over to the left and playing a sleek one two. Sergio Busquets somehow avoided a booking for a foul on Scott McTominay that was both cynically planned and vicious.

With eight minutes gone there was the first little rev of the throttle as Messi skipped away, waggling his hips and easing into the space as McTominay blinked. The goal came from a moment of La Masia gold, but it was the period of possession play before it that was vital. It was a lulling, pummelling, nerve stretching little passage where the ball was shuttled across the front of United’s defence, jabs and feints and flickers, a test of patience and will, then suddenly dissolving into that perfectly timed change of pace.

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Messi had been lingering for a while in a deep inside-right position. Seeing Busquets took the ball and set off on a diagonal run from right to left, a vicious little thing like a knife jabbed into the guts, slicing open a sliver of space on that side. The pass from Busquets was wonderful, flighted over the top and straight into that sniping stride.

Messi took the ball the way he does, hoovering it up into his feet by some as yet unidentified process and then sent it back the other way, towards the yellow shirt his footballing third eye told him was lurking at the far post. It was a beautiful pass, looping up high over the United defenders, then dipping down to the unmarked Suárez, who headed back again towards Messi’s side and into the corner of the net off Luke Shaw.

Lionel Messi was left with a scratched eye and nose after being caught by the flailing arm of Chris Smalling. Photograph: Paul Currie/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

VAR intervened successfully, overruling a duff offside flag, and leaving Suárez dancing around on his own, taunting the crowd, leaping about weirdly as the referee suddenly conjured a goal from his earpiece.

To their credit United stuck at their game and changed it on 28 minutes. At which point, Smalling brought it on. It was not a foul but it was a little gruesome. Messi was waiting under a high ball. From behind him Smalling came through with great force, won the ball, then caught Messi with an arm to the nose and eye that left a gush of that precious DNA leaking on to the Old Trafford turf.

Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

Messi sat and gathered his thoughts, then got up with his eye still dripping blood. Looking at his baffled, angry expression, a victim of ambient force, generalised aggression, the thought occurred that this is why Messi won’t ever play in England. He’d still tear up the league and score 30 goals but you can bet something similar would happen three times a game. It is a different game in the Premier League. This place puts years on you, takes out chunks, demands a degree of pain, of additional muscle.

United had now made Messi angry but it was the red shirts who played with a controlled rage. Suddenly the press was working, the red shirts were stronger and quicker to the ball. If there was a slight lack of precision, there was nothing missing in United’s spirit and drive and they did loosen the hinges on Barcelona’s midfield.

Barça will take the advantage of that away goal, gifted by a flicker of gold-standard brilliance, but United will be proud of their performance, will travel with hope, will at least retain the certainty they can chase this team down; even if Messi, even on a poor night, remains almost impossible to tame.

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