BARCELONA: Lionel Messi appears a man on a mission in the Champions League this season after making it five goals in two games following Barcelona’s 4-2 win over Tottenham on Wednesday.
Three quarter-final exits in a row have left Barca, and Messi, desperate to make amends. He began with a hat-trick against PSV Eindhoven at the Camp Nou last month and delivered another statement performance at Wembley.
“He is simply the best in the world,” said Jordi Alba, who himself provided a trio of assists, but was still left out of the Spain squad on Thursday.
“We are a team together – but Leo makes us better in everything.”
A mesmeric display included Messi scoring two, hitting the post twice, and having a creative hand in the other pair of goals scored by Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic.
It was a familiar tale of woe for English opposition, against whom the Argentinian has now scored 21 goals and registered six assists in total, more than any other nationality or club.
He is already the top scorer in this season’s Champions League, two ahead of Paulo Dybala, Edin Dzeko and Neymar.
“The image of Barca beating a team of great quality, despite their injuries, was a clear warning that this year the Champions League is Messi’s obsession,” wrote Barcelona daily Mundo Deportivo.
“The Argentinian gave no respite to Tottenham,” wrote Diario Sport. “They could do no more than hold their breath every time Leo touched the ball.”
For Barca coach Ernesto Valverde, it was simple: “Messi always delivers.”
After a turbulent week, which had included two draws and a defeat in La Liga, Valverde rolled the dice again, replacing Ousmane Dembele with Arthur Melo and pushing Philippe Coutinho out of the middle trio and into the attack.
— Successor to Iniesta —
Coutinho is considered by Barcelona to be the natural successor to Andres Iniesta but he was lethal further forward while the 22-year-old Arthur, on his first Champions League start, showed maturity beyond his years.
“Arthur’s first recital as a Barca player could not have come at a better time or in a better place,” wrote La Vanguardia. “The person in charge of his signing deserves a medal.”
Diario Sport even compared Arthur to Xavi. “A team like Barça needs talent and vision in midfield and Arthur brings it,” it read. “At a huge stadium like Wembley, he did not crumble.”
The success of Arthur and Coutinho, however, raises question marks for Dembele and Arturo Vidal, with the latter the more experienced option to replace Coutinho in midfield.
Vidal, who came on in the 87th minute, posted a photo of an angry face on Instagram shortly after the match, while this was a setback too for Dembele, after an encouraging start to the season.
Both could be given a chance to impress in a crunch game away to Valencia on Sunday, when Barcelona will be hoping to transfer their faultless form in Europe to La Liga.
“If we played all the matches at the same level as this one, we would win all the competitions every year,” said Alba.
After Valencia, Barca’s difficult month continues with three home games, starting against Sevilla and ending with ‘El Clasico’ against Real Madrid on October 28.
In between, they could all but wrap up qualification to the Champions League last 16 by seeing off fellow challengers Inter Milan.
“Nothing has changed,” Valverde said. “We are a team that tries to take the game, tries to dominate, but football is the way it is.
“When you go through a time when you have not won some games, it is difficult to react as the team has done. We have reacted.”