Cometh the hour, cometh the man and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi stepped up to the mark in sensational fashion on Wednesday.
The Argentine star scored two outstanding goals and set up Brazilian Neymar to add another in injury time as Barcelona handed Bayern Munich and former coach Pep Guardiola a 3-0 defeat in a high-quality and compelling Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich on Wednesday night.
Not even Guardiola -- who helped Messi become one of the best ever to play the game -- could find a way of stopping the prolific forward from scoring his 76th and record 77th goals in the competition despite a disciplined Bayern defence and the world’s best goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer in business.
A day after Juventus beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the other first-leg match, the scale of Barcelona’s victory now makes it a runaway favourite to reach the final -- ahead of the return leg against Bayern in Munich on Tuesday.
“Again, Messi leaves us speechless,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said after the match.
Guardiola, however, wasn’t ready to give all credit to Messi.
“It wasn’t only Messi. Barca is a very good team,” said a dour Guardiola. “The third goal is a shame because with 2-0 we still had options.
Guardiola made the risky decision to start Robert Lewandowski, who played with a mask to protect fractures in his upper jaw and nasal bone, when he also decided to try and stop Messi and his fellow forwards with a three-man defense.
Lewandowski, however, spent long stretches waiting for counterattacks that never happened. And when he had Bayern’s first chance in the 18th minute -- and what a chance it was when Barcelona left him unmarked in front of the goal -- he scuffed Thomas Mueller'’ low ball and sent it trickling well wide.
Guardiola’s side might have beaten Barcelona at its own game of ball possession, with 53 percent to 47 for the hosts, but Barcelona mustered eight shots on goal to none for Bayern.
Led by Messi on the right, Barcelona ran amok at the start.
Not only his usual unstoppable self in attack as he sped through, around and past defenders, Messi was inspired in his pressure and that proved contagious for his entire team as Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Dani Alves recovered ball after ball inside Bayern’s half.
“We created many more chances than our rival, and in a thrilling final 15 minutes we decided the match,” said Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, a friend and a former teammate of Guardiola.
Messi headed on a ball to leave Suarez all alone and with room to move for Barcelona’s first opportunity in the 12th, but Neuer made a great save by stretching his right leg to block his low strike.
Neymar was next to rue a miss when, two minutes later, Suarez crossed for the Brazil forward on the edge of the six-yard box, only for Neymar to slip and send the ball off Rafinha and past the wrong side of the post.
Guardiola had seen enough and ordered his team to shift to a four-man back line. The German champions then improved after halftime, and the nerves of both Barcelona’s fans and players started to fray.
That was when Messi stepped up.
Messi and Dani Alves combined to put Barcelona in front when the right back recovered the ball from Juan Bernat and laid off for the Argentina international, who put the ball on his left boot and fired a shot between Neuer and the post.
Then, after Rakitic set him up, Messi did it all himself when he used a lightning change of foot to stagger Boateng before lifting a delicate shot over Neuer with his right. That gave him one goal more than Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo in Europe’s top-tier tournament.
They were also Messi’s 52nd and 53rd goals of the season, and they put him one goal ahead of Ronaldo with 10 goals as the top scorer in the Champions League this season.
And he then turned provider in stoppage time by playing in Neymar to all but book Barca’s place in the final in Berlin early next month.
“When Messi is inspired he is unstoppable and tonight he showed his talent again,” Barca defender Gerard Pique told Spanish television.
Guardiola had said before the match that there was no way to defend Messi’s “magnitude of talent”.
And despite keeping him in check for well over an hour, Messi finally proved his former coach right.