Barcelona versus **insert ANY English club here** is my favourite fixture in the Champions League knockouts.
I realised this in a packed-out North London pub on Wednesday night.
I was there to watch Lionel Messi against players I watch on Match of the Day every week (this time Chelsea). Judging on both the lack of blue shirts, and nervousness in the air, others were there for him too.
On screen, the images were all Messi. Hugs from former team mates, a super slow mo of him plucking a ball out of thin air in the warm up. Next, a 30ft iteration of the man being passed around the Camp Nou. “God Save the King” it read.
Lionel Messi, Barcelona, and their appeal to the footballing neutral is undeniable and after all that pre-match fanfare, it took two minutes to be reminded as to why.
It was little Leo making people – people who are very good at the game of football – look silly. Again.
In this case it was Thibaut Courtois. Usually good with his legs. Nutmegged. The only physical place Messi could have scored.
Less than 20 minutes later it was one of his old mates, Cesc, at fault. He should have known better.
Messi, it’s not an exaggeration to say, was already causing utter panic amongst highly-accomplished players. Nothing new there, then.
He skipped past two after Fabregas (it doesn’t really matter who) and they were chasing him like schoolboys.
As this was happening, everyone forgot about Ousmane Dembele – it’s easily done when you’re scrambling – square ball from Messi. 2-0.
Dembele, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic. They can play a bit. So can Messi’s old mate,
Andres Iniesta. One sublime flick through showing he’s still got the touch to execute a footballing vision only equalled in modern times by You Know Who.
And let’s not forget the others. Those not with us anymore. In a top-level footballing sense. Xavi. Ronaldinho. Alexis Sanchez (joking).
I mention those recent greats because after Messi had nutmegged (and humiliated) Courtois for the second time and put the tie beyond doubt, my stomach sank. A horrible realisation took hold.
It’s all about Messi. Other players have come and gone in my lifetime. Soon Iniesta will too. But none will leave a hole like Leo.
How many more times will the man grace English soil in a Champions League knockout game? Five? maybe. Ten? unlikely.
He is the reason that Chelsea fans were able to shrug their shoulders on the final whistle.
He humbles fans, just like he humbles players.
He’s the reason I’ll be back in the pub if Barca draw Liverpool or better still Manchester City (the Pep thing) in this competition.
That “God Save the King” banner was back on our screens on the final whistle but in my Messi-induced reverie I couldn’t help thinking we needed another one making.
“God Savour the King”. It would read. And it should fly above every football pub in the world.