Ahead of tonight's Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona, Andy Mitten takes a close look at the impact Lionel Messi can have on a match.
Uefa Champions League: Lionel Messi the trump card Barcelona must have against Bayern Munich
It was impossible for television cameras to convey the impact; you really had to be inside Camp Nou to fully appreciate what Lionel Messi's arrival meant to Barcelona fans.
The Catalans were playing poorly and trailing Paris St Germain by a goal in the Champions League quarter-final second-leg two weeks ago. They were heading out of the competition after a 2-2 first-leg draw.
Without Messi, fans were fearful. He had limped off with a hamstring injury in Paris and his fitness had been uncertain since. Now, his side needed him more than ever.
Barcelona fans can get tetchy at the mention of Messi dependencia. Loaded with negative connotations, it implies that they are a one-man team and that world-class footballers such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta are reduced to a sideshow.
Yet there are times when only Messi will do, when even Xavi and Iniesta, et al, are not enough. The fixture with PSG was one of them.
A huge cheer, the biggest of the night from the crowd of 96,000, enveloped the stadium when the Argentine began to warm up after 50 minutes. Fans cheered like a goal had been scored when he replaced Cesc Fabregas as tensions mounted, as if everything was going to be all right.
Messi is the ace to trump them all. He can do the hardest thing in football and beat a man, he can also beat three or four.
His mere presence changed the atmosphere on and off the pitch. It was a psychological boost and both teams knew it.
Messi had 29 minutes to change the game; he needed nine.
He sprinted away from Javier Pastore, the most expensive footballer of 2011, then evaded Marco Verratti to set up David Villa.
Pedro did the rest for the equaliser, which sent Barcelona through to the semi-finals, the first leg of which is tonight against Bayern Munich in Bavaria. Without Messi, Barcelona had just one shot on target.
In a tunnel near the Paris team room after the game, David Beckham stopped to talk. "Messi is the best player in the world, it's as simple as that," he said. As brief as his comment was, it said a lot.
The central defenders Carlos Puyol and Javier Mascherano are set to miss the match tonight, while Messi has a 70 per cent chance of starting, according to Barca's assistant coach, Jordi Roura. Bayern should remember Messi was said to be only 50 per cent fit ahead of the Paris game. If he does not play, Barca will be much diminished.
"Barcelona are fantastic, but not quite so fantastic without Messi," said Levante's goalkeeping coach, Pepe Martinez Puig, during Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Camp Nou. "I told that to my goalkeeper out there."
The goalkeeper, Kaylor Navas, playing only his third La Liga game, kept Barcelona out for 83 minutes and the Catalans did not have the option of bringing Messi on. Bayern are vastly superior to Levante, but Messi is likely to play tonight. Tito Vilanova's side do indeed rely on Messi as a game-changer.
Until his recent injury, he scored in a record 19 consecutive league matches. He has netted 57 times this season in all competitions, 43 of them in the league. David Villa, Barcelona's second-best scorer, has 14 goals.
Barcelona will have Messi for more than 30 minutes tonight, but they will keep Bayern waiting until 90 minutes before kick off before confirming it, thus inflicting the maximum psychological damage.
And that alone can be significant.
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