Say what you will about him, but Lionel Messi can still draw the breath and dazzle the eyes and bring a crowd of nearly 100,000 to its feet.
Even when everything is changing, a 3–0 second-leg quarterfinal victory over Manchester United featured football’s one great, enduring constant: Messi beaming, Barcelona winning, opponents left staring, hollow and glassy, at a genius that defies belief.
It’s easy to forget that the Messi who first emerged all those years ago was a winger: the Messi who was considered too small, too slight, who roamed Barcelona’s right flank, away from the monsters of the middle.
It was Pep Guardiola who took the risk, demoting two of the great strikers of their generations, Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimović, so that Messi might play centrally.
By the time he picked up his fourth and most recent Champions League trophy, in 2015, he was something else again: a striker and a schemer combined, with Neymar to one side and Luis Suárez to the other.
What is remarkable is that each version has been, arguably, the finest exponent of that position in history.
Messi the winger: the goal against Getafe, in 2007, when he darted and dived around, between and at one point through five players before scoring. Messi the false 9: the header in the 2009 Champions League final, perhaps, the goal that proved he was really not a false anything.
Messi the one-man attack: his second goal against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champions League semifinal, the one when, in what seemed like slow motion, Jérôme Boateng collapsed onto his back, his head spinning and his feet bound by Messi’s deft brilliance.
And now we come to this Messi: the Messi that defies categorization.
Messi, now, at 31, goes where he likes, when he likes, and Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona flexes its shape to fit in the gaps. He spends the first 10 minutes or so of every game ambling around, working out where the opposition is weakest—it took him some time against this version of Manchester United—and then stations himself in whatever position he thinks will cause most damage. His teammates make the necessary adjustments, and he gets to work.
It is impossible to know whether this Messi has already recorded one of those defining moments. He produces brilliance with such astounding frequency that only with hindsight is certainty possible.
The question now is how far that brilliance can carry Barcelona. An eighth Spanish title in 11 years is nearly secure already—a run of domestic success unparalleled in the club’s history—but a first Champions League semifinal appearance since 2015 is, arguably, of greater significance.
Most likely, it will be Liverpool that awaits there, and then either Ajax or another English emissary, Manchester City or Tottenham, in the final.
As long as Messi is there, however, it doesn’t matter.
Do you agree?