If you wanted evidence of time’s inevitable erosion of even the most resistant of talents, you would’ve found it just before halftime of today’s Barcelona-Liverpool Champions League semifinal. It was then that Lionel Messi intercepted a backpass just past the halfway line, found himself essentially 1-v-2 against the Liverpool center backs, and—rather than inflict upon them the terrifying speed and elusiveness on the ball that was once the very essence of his game—instead slowed things down, biding his time until help arrived. When he did finally make his move, the window had passed and the chance came to nothing. It was a result almost antithetical to the player we’ve known Messi to be for all these years:
The Messi of old never would’ve let an opportunity like that pass him by. The Messi of old would’ve eaten up Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip the way he did, for instance, every man on Athletic Bilbao’s right flank in 2015, or Getafe’s entire team in 2007. The Messi of today, 15 years into his career and 31 years old, must know he isn’t as quick as he was then, that his tank doesn’t have the gas for a full-throttle sprint down half the pitch anymore, that the relentless and anarchic running of his youth is beyond him now.
But then again, the Messi of old couldn’t have scored the most spectacular of his two goals against Liverpool today, unleashing his favorite new trick with a stupendous free kick that gave Barcelona a 3-0 lead that has them in commanding position to reach the Champions League final:
Messi today is still far and away the best player on the planet. Messi is no longer as good as he once was. Messi is having one of his best seasons ever. These statements may seem contradictory, but they are true. They testify to the true absurdity of his peak prowess and to his stubborn refusal to acquiesce to senescence by tweaking and adding to his game to stay on top.
Today’s performance was the perfect example. Both Barça and Liverpool came into today’s match clearly fearing their opponent’s power. Both teams went with starting lineups that diverged from their typical styles of play, aimed mostly at playing a more cautious, defensive game. Neither team wanted to let the other’s main weapons fire; both bet that their own weapons would be able to get off a few crucial shots more or less by themselves. Both plans were sound, and both worked to a large extent. But only one of these two teams has Messi, and that made all the difference.
Barcelona got their first goal about midway through the first half, when Jordi Alba punished Liverpool—who left him wide open far too many times—with one of his trademark pinpoint crosses that found Luis Suárez for an easy flick-in. It was Alba’s 17th assist of the season, and a reflection of how the world’s best left back is the second-most-important attacking player for what’s looking like the world’s best team.
Liverpool ramped up the pressure to nab one of those all-important away goals as the match wore on, which created spaces but few clear-cut chances, while also gifting dangerous amounts of room to Barça on the counter. However, with the aging legs of Messi and Suárez leading those counters, Barcelona couldn’t take much advantage—that is, until the 75th minute, when Barça orchestrated a quick (and fortunate) attack after a Liverpool turnover and capped it with a Messi tap-in from a rebound:
Less than 10 minutes later, Messi blasted in the aforementioned free kick and, in doing so, marked today as yet another of his iconic big-game performances.
Messi ended the match with two goals from four total shots, a maddeningly ruthless nine successful dribbles from 13 attempts, and one chance created that should’ve resulted in the tie-killing fourth goal with the last kick of the match. It was a staggering performance worthy of Messi’s stature as probably the greatest player of all time. It was in some ways a far cry from the things he could do at his physical peak; in others it was proof of just how insanely lethal this older and different Messi is.
This Messi is not his best, but he is still the best. And that’s more than enough for him to easily defeat all challengers as he moves one step closer to a third career treble.