Pep Guardiola, the former and very formative coach of Barcelona, once said he had run out of superlatives to describe Lionel Messi. And that was more than four years ago, when Messi was already the fulcrum of most stylish of club teams and had plenty more superlative gestures yet to perform and to invent on the pitch, and several records still to tear through and rest in his sport and many, many prizes more to accumulate.
Can he still surprise us? Yes, and often, though Messi showed Camp Nou something they genuinely had never seen before on Sunday night, a novelty with a touch of gimmickry about it towards the end of a brilliant second half from the league leaders and champions, and from their magical number 10.
Messi won a penalty against Celta Vigo, with the score at 3-1. He took it himself, but chose not to shoot but to pass the ball to Luis Suarez. Innovative? Certainly. Audacious? Very.
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There may be some critics who also call it a little arrogant. Barcelona’s regular mastery of their opponents, and the readiness of some of their more gifted players to tease rivals in duels can, occasionally, come close to taunting. The likes of Neymar and Dani Alves have been accused of a showiness that might be taken for patronising in the past. But Messi seldom hears that of his excellence, or his ingenuity.
The device by which Messi put Barcelona 4-1 ahead against Celta had been used in top-division soccer before, most famously when Johan Cruyff, once an inspiring Barcelona himself, and his Feyenoord team-mate Jesper Olsen exchanged passes from a penalty before Cruyff scored. The game’s rules allow that, provided the penalty-taker passes the ball forward and all other players except the opposition goalkeeper are outside the demarcated area when the first contact takes place.
But almost nobody ever tries an indirect penalty: It’s too risky, too selfless The Arsenal players Thierry Henry and Robert Pires hatched a plan to score a goal from a penalty via a pass in the 1990s, and their plan failed. The successful Cruyff-Olsen trick happened 34 years ago.
Luis Enrique, the Barcelona head coach, smiled but looked utterly surprised after Messi and Suarez had startled everybody to make it 4-1 from a passed penalty. The Celta player Augusto Cabral was not offended: "I was annoyed they scored, but not the way they did it," he said. "We should have been more attentive," Camp Nou was already abuzz by then with the quality and enterprise of Barcelona’s soccer in a second-half that Celta had entered drawing 1-1 and full of gumption.
Luis Enrique has, all season, praised and enjoyed the generosity with which his three in-form strikers, Messi, Suarez and Neymar, combine with one another, apparently as happy to assist goals as convert them. The gesture in which, poised at the penalty spot, Messi gave up a likely goal for his own account to help Suarez, the Primera Division’s leading marksmen, add to his own tally, spoke of comradeship. Had Messi scored the penalty, he would have reached a phenomenal landmark, his 300th La Liga goal.
That, evidently, can wait. Nobody is about to catch him up on his towering register of goals in Spain.
Nobody else as regularly performs the sort of elusive, wriggly dribbles with which he drew the foul for which the penalty was awarded. Messi had a vintage night against Celta, and for much of it he was rigorously and quite effectively marked by a team who came to the home of the champions intrepid and emboldened by having beaten Barcelona earlier in the season. The final scoreline, 6-1, felt harder on Celta than the cunning trick Messi and Suarez pulled on them with that late penalty, although they would entitled to begrudge the fact the referee and his assistants did not spot a small encroachment by Suarez over the line of the penalty area, as Messi connected with the ball.
The goal meant another Suarez hat-trick, and his 39th goal across competitions for Barcelona in 2015-16 so far. It was his 23rd in La Liga, restoring his position at the top of the list of marksmen a day after Cristiano Ronaldo, who had scored twice in Real Madrid’s 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao, had put himself back at the front of that queue, on 21.
Just as Messi played the provider with Suarez via the indirect penalty, so Suarez’s second goal against Celta owed much to Neymar. The Brazilian, also in the running to be La Liga’s top scorer, had slipped a fine angled shot towards the far corner of the Celta goal. Suarez poked it over the line; the ball would probably have crossed, and been credited to Neymar, without the Uruguyan’s intervention.
Messi had opened the scoring with a curled, powerful direct free-kick. Celta, who created enough openings to have led at key points in the first hour, equalized through a John Giudetti penalty and went into half-time Barcelona’s equals. But they learned what others before them have learned again and again, that there is a relentlessness, an extra gear to be found by this Barcelona team, for whom Neymar and substitute Ivan Rakitic also scored in the final fiesta period following the cheeky penalty.
With the win, Barcelona maintained their three-point lead over Atletico Madrid, who won 1-0 at Getafe thanks to a Fernando Torres goal, and the four-point advantage they hold over Real. Come Wednesday, they can extend those advantages, when they fulfil the fixture they have in hand over their rivals, away at Sporting Gijon. They may not have a gimmick as eye-catching as the Messi-Suarez penalty plotted for that fixture, but they are in the mood for more superlatives.