Majestic Messi bamboozles Lyon as Barcelona cruise to Champions League quarter-finals

The Atomic flea does it again

The stage was set three weeks ago at Lyon's Olympic Stadium: the Frenchmen ready for the onslaught of attacking prowess pulsating through a rampant Barcelona side, packed full of elite-level quality. Bruno Genesio's men particularly ready for the Catalan's number 10, Lionel Messi, to drive at them relentlessly for an hour and a half; to stretch their defence and test out their man between the sticks at every opportunity.

Punters filled their bet-slips with -2 handicap selections as the Spaniards were expected to run amuck in the east of France. A resilient performance from the hosts - which saw them stick to a strict game plan laid out by their man on the touchline throughout the entirety of the performance - meant that Barcelona left knowing they had it all to do in the return leg 22 days later.

With the game hanging firmly in the balance at 0-0, Wednesday night's clash at the Nou Camp was do-or-die for Barca. An away goal for the visitors would have been catastrophic for Ernesto Valverde's side: it would have made their job ten times more difficult and seen the possibility of progression in this season's Champions League massively hindered. Once again the stage was set, this time in the Spanish region of Catalonia - Barcelona's playground.

Lyon know that a lucky break could well decide the tie for them, but their mounting concerns over the man dubbed 'The Atomic Flea' have now intensified due to the fact they're now in the Argentine's backyard; the kingdom he's ruled over for the previous 15 years, like a lost group of school kids who have broken their compass' and lost their maps on an orienteering trip in unknown territory.

Lionel Messi Barcelona

Lyon helpless as Messi runs riot

Their concerns aren't for nothing, of course. For what they're about to face is a man who, season after season, seemingly appears to find football easier. Lionel Messi is constantly hitting new heights, with his consistency at the very top now becoming a normality, so much so that when the 31-year-old dribbles the ball past five players and thuds it home past whichever helpless keeper finds himself unfortunate enough to be guarding the net at that given time, barely anybody bats an eye lid. Messi's goals, no matter how sublime they may or may not be, always get the same reaction: "he's f*cking done it again".

Last night was no different. It took just 17 minutes for the midfield maestro to write every newspaper's back pages, when he had the sheer audacity to chip home a penalty to put Barcelona a goal in front. This type of nonchalant spot kick is one of the most satisfying things to witness in football when it pulls off, and perhaps even more satisfying when it doesn't. Only the world's very best have the bollocks to actually attempt it - Eden Hazard did it in the League Cup final, but that was in a shootout. Messi did it in front of 100,000 fans in the biggest club competition in world football when his side were still in with a realistic chance of being knocked out.

Again though, this type of move is expected from the Argentinian. In fact, had he have placed it elegantly into the bottom corner of the net, or smashed it into the top corner, we'd all have been left a little disappointed in our favourite human. Lyon manager Bruno Genesio said before Wednesday's match that it was "almost impossible to stop at this level of performance and motivation", when asked about limiting Messi's influence in the tie.

He wasn't wrong. Off the ball Messi is almost just as dangerous as he is on it, a skill mastered by only a select few, but mastered to perfection by the Barcelona playmaker. Floating in-between the lines of midfield and attack, it was impossible for Lyon to contain the 5ft 7 magician; all they could do is helplessly watch on as Messi did what he's always done - steal the show and decide the game.

Although he pulled the strings and controlled the game for the full 90, Messi's second notable contribution to the match came 12 minutes before the end, with the scoreline now reading 2-1 after a well taken volley from Lucas Tousart reignited some belief for the French guests. Messi picked up the ball from just inside the opponents half and went on a trademark mazy run past three Lyon defenders, twisting and turning more than Sam Allardyce at an all-inclusive buffet in Majorca.

He chopped left, onto his less-weak left foot and looked to shoot, but didn't. Two Lyon players have now been sent for a hotdog and 'all' Messi has to do is beat the terrified goalkeeper between the sticks. He does just that, of course, passing it with his less-strong right foot into the bottom corner; a slight hand by Anthony Lopes slows the travel of the ball down a little, but not much, as it trickles over the line and regains Barcelona's two goal cushion with just 11 minutes of real time left on the clock.

Scorer turned provider

Messi wasn't done though, this is his territory remember and Lyon had the bare-faced cheek to score in it. Barca break away three minutes after their last goal, picking up the ball on the left hand side and it's clear who Jordi Alba is trying to find before he even touches the ball. A perfectly weighted, first time cross-field pass finds the Flea, who carries the ball from the half-way line towards goal.

The move quickly turns into a 4 v 4 attack, with only one potential outcome. Gerard Pique is hooning it down the left flank.. why? Why the f*ck is Barca's centre-half doing that in the 81st minute of a Champions League match his side are already leading 3-1? I still don't know but it doesn't matter, because he's picked out by Messi thanks to an astonishing pass which cuts through Lyon's exhausted line of defence, the most difficult option of the three he had available to him by a distance and bang, it's 4-1 and we're all left saying: "he's f*cking done it again".

Another assist follows just five minutes later, and there's a similar pattern emerging. Messi is presented with the ball deep inside his own half, and yet again glides with it until suddenly he's on the verge of the Lyon penalty area. A simple pass slipped through to the overlapping Ousmane Dembele who's galloping cautiously to his left - releasing the pent-up energy he's been storing from the 70 minutes spent on the substitutes bench, whilst desperately trying to remain onside - results in the Frenchman nutmegging poor Lopes and nestling Barca's fifth of the evening. Bloody hell.

Messi

108 Champions League goals and counting

Last night's brace takes Messi's total in the Champions League to 108, dwarfing Real Madrid legend Raul who finished on 71 and Karim Benzema who currently has 60 to his name. Messi now sits just 16 goals behind Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who has scored an astonishing 124 UCL goals after his sensational match-winning hat-trick against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night.

From his disgustingly cool dink over Arsenal's Manuel Almunia eight years ago, to his strike against Manchester United in the 2011 final; from sitting Jerome Boateng down before chipping Manuel Neuer against Bayern, to running through half of Real Madrid's team like he was playing a game of 5-a-side, the Champions League belongs to Lionel Messi as much as it does Ronaldo.

You see, Messi does things most of us can't even do on Fifa, and he does it to such a consistent degree at the very highest possible level. It's well documented that for the first 10 minutes of a match you will rarely see the Barcelona No.10 touch the ball; instead, he walks around the field of play at a snails pace, examining the opponents, what their weaknesses are and how he can exploit them. Then, when the time is right, he'll snap into gear and before you know it you're yet again left saying: "he's f*cking done it again".

Ronaldo v Messi

Ronaldo hat-trick a motivator

After a memorable night in Turin, which saw Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly rescue Juventus' hopes of Champions League glory by scoring a stunning trio of goals against Atletico Madrid, once again the spotlight turned to Messi to deliver to ensure the rivalry between the pair would remain as close and as fierce as ever. That's exactly what happened on Wednesday evening, and you can't help but think that Messi used his nemesis' flawless performance against Madrid as a motivator heading into the showdown with Lyon.

It's almost as if Messi was sat in front of his TV on Tuesday night, watching Ronaldo continuously hit the back of the net: fists clenched, face screwed, snarling at his wife whenever she dared ask him what was wrong. The Argentine may not be as obviously competitive as his rival, however you would be foolish in thinking that he's not fussed about Ronaldo surpassing his many achievements in the game by winning the Ballon d'Or this season.

Ultimately, despite the copious amount of respect the pair have for each other, Tuesday's performance would have irritated Messi, just like Wednesday's would have irritated Ronaldo. It's what would have spurred him on at the Nou Camp and meant that we, as the viewer, witnessed two footballing masterclasses by the worlds very best, two nights on the bounce.

Barcelona second-favourites to go the distance

Following Wednesday night's victory, Barcelona now find themselves second-favourites to clinch the Champions League in June, behind former manager Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, who are expected to go the distance after a resounding 7-0 win over Schalke on Tuesday. For all the quality City possess however, what they don't have is the same level of experience Barcelona do in the competition, and, more importantly, they do not have a Lionel Messi.

It's looking all but certain Barca will clinch their second consecutive La Liga title at the end of the campaign: they currently sit seven points ahead of Atletico Madrid at the top of the summit heading into the final two months of the season, while their involvement in the Copa del Rey has again reached the last possible phase, as they face Valencia in May's final.

The Catalans success this term is due to a team of hugely talented individuals all pulling together and dismantling almost everything in their path, but what is the common denominator? Yes, you're completely correct, it's the little South American wizard who struts around in the centre of the park, often drifting wide, deep, in, out, up, down - anywhere where it's physically impossible to catch the cheeky trickster.

'We're lucky to live in an era where we're witnessing two of the worlds very best continually perform to the highest level every week' is an exhausted sentence spoken by football fans across the globe, albeit in all kinds of various different languages. But it's true, isn't it? When else has there been such a rivalry where you'd put your mortgage on one outshining the other immediately after one has hogged the headlines? It's like nothing that's ever been seen before, this, and we're all extremely lucky to be a part of it all.

Lionel Messi

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