Messi opens bag of tricks as Barca drop hammer on Bayern Munich
It took the Catalans three-quarters of the game, but superstar Lionel Messi finally broke open the deadlock, scoring twice inside four minutes to lead Barcelona to a 3-0 victory over Bayern in Wednesday's UEFA Champions League semifinal at Nou Camp. Neymar added insult in stoppage time on a clean breakaway.
A thrilling and occasionally wide-open game punctuated by the heroics of Bayern backstop Manuel Neuer, the result gives Barcelona a huge advantage heading into Tuesday's return leg in Munich (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET). And, with Wednesday's goals, Messi again moved past his old rival Cristiano Ronaldo atop the lifetime Champions League goal-scoring table. Messi's tally of 77 goals is now the tournament's new lifetime record.
Messi's goals came in a ferocious four-minute spell, one coming off a mistake, the other a simply sublime piece of individual skill that finally made the excellent Neuer look merely mortal.
"He's a player [Messi] that's impossible to describe," Javier Mascherano told Sky Sports after the match. "They tried to play a little bit wider and we found some spaces to play counterattack. It's important when we can go a little bit deep to try to play the counterattack to have players like Messi, Suarez and Neymar."
In the 77th minute, Juan Bernat conceded possession cheaply and Dani Alves whipped across a ball to Messi, open on the edge of the area. Shifting the ball from right to left, Messi picked his spot and beat the keeper at his near post with a frozen rope. It was a superb strike, and it ended what had been a brave effort from Bayern. Three minutes later, Messi showed why he is considered the greatest in the game, collecting from Ivan Rakitic, dribbling around Jerome Boateng and then softly chipping the onrushing Neuer to seal the win. It was a special goal from a very special player; it was also a bit cruel on a German side depleted by injuries.
Neymar's goal, in the 93rd minute, was set up after Suarez was fouled in the middle of the park. Messi was allowed to play the advantage, and Neymar, off on a clean trot, slipped the ball right through Neuer, to perhaps kill the tie off for good.
Absent four key players including Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, Bayern might have been expected to sit back and close up shop against what is widely considered the most potent attacking trident in the world. Instead, Josep Guardiola chose to play some games in his return to his old club, setting up a back three, and audaciously playing a man-marking system. This made for a wide-open spectacle played at full throttle for the opening 17 minutes until Bayern, visibly struggling to contain Luis Suarez, switched to a flat back four.
Oh, but those 17 minutes. From the outset, Barcelona ducked and wove their way through the German midfield, pulling the back three apart like saltwater taffy. Suarez has his first real sniff on goal after only three minutes, and you started to sense there was no way the Germans could keep up.
Neuer kept Bayern in the game during that early period, making a massive stop in the 12th minute with his right leg on Suarez after the forward torched Jerome Boateng. Suarez might have done better with the chance, but the keeper was right out to cut down the angle. Three minutes later, Neymar almost turned a parried shot from Suarez in, only to see the ball run back across Neuer's body and out.
Suarez would then head over on the 26th minute, outjumping Boateng off a corner but failing to get the ball under the crossbar. But Barcelona's next best chance was again denied by the big German keeper with five minutes to play. Dani Alves, slipped through by a classic chip from Andres Iniesta, volleyed at full stretch only to see Neuer somehow scramble it out. Ivan Rakitic's rebound was scuffed wide.
Did Bayern have looks? Well, yes and no. Thomas Muller was able to strip Jordi Alba and feed in Robert Lewandowski in the 18th minute, but the shot was badly scuffed wide. Bayern would actually end the half without a single shot on target while Barca had forced Neuer into making four key stops. But, as the half wore on and Bayern gained more purchase into the game, one thing was true: The Bavarians started to look far more organized at the back, able to repel Neymar and the unusually quiet Lionel Messi while maintaining a very high press.
And yet the story remained on Neuer and his heroics. On the hour, Suarez beat the trap and fed the ball up smartly to Neymar on the gallop. Against any other goalkeeper, it would have been in the back of the net; Neuer, however, was well off his line, well out of his penalty area, and swept the ball away, showing shades of Franz Beckenbauer.
When the goals came, they felt cruel. Neuer's brilliance will be a footnote, overlooked in the aftermath of yet another brilliant show from Messi. Bayern now must dust themselves off and hope they can reverse the damage inflicted here in a week's time.
But against a Barcelona side that frankly looks irresistible, that seems a tall order, even for this very fine German side.