Lionel Messi provided the highlight reel of the Champions League semi finals on Wednesday night, but both first leg games were nothing short of a great advert for the very best of European club football. It’s not often that the Champions League semis throw up four genuine giants of the game, but this year’s semi-finalists could not be any bigger.
Real Madrid are 10-time winners and defending champions; Bayern Munich have five titles to their name and won as recently as 2013; Barcelona’s four titles include three within the last nine years; and Juventus, Italian champions for four years running are less accomplished of late, but boast two titles as well. A real line up of European football aristocracy.
Juventus and Real Madrid set the ball rolling on Tuesday night, serving up a thrilling, high quality contest in Turin. The Italian champions shaded the contest, settled by a second half Carlos Tevez penalty that gave Juventus a 2-1 lead ahead of next week’s return leg in Madrid. But Cristiano Ronaldo’s away goal – his 76th career Champions League goal and a new record on the night – could yet prove decisive in the race to book a place in the Champions League final.
Wednesday night in Barcelona’s Nou Camp was no less enthralling, even if Messi’s genius eventually helped the home side to a convincing 3-0 win and inched them closer to another Champions League final. That the contest was still evenly poised at 0-0 with 15 minutes to play perhaps shows how close a battle this was. Bayern, led by Barca old boy, Pep Guardiola – who won 14 trophies in a four-year stint at the Nou Camp – were already handicapped with injuries to key players. Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben, Davis Alaba, and Holger Badstuber were all missing, while striker Robert Lewandowski, who suffered facial injures just a week ago, had to play with a protective mask. It showed too; they couldn’t cope with Barcelona’s cloying pressure and didn’t muster a single shot at goal
In truth, Barcelona should have been ahead much earlier. Luis Suarez and Neymar both spurned chances, and Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer was in inspired form, both anticipating and reacting superbly to keep his team in the game. But in the end, not even a world class keeper playing out of his skin could deny the genius of Messi. He scored the opening goal with a scorching drive into Neuer’s near post after 77 minutes, and, just three minutes later, left Jerome Boateng for dead – sending the Internet into humorous overdrive– before scooping a superb lob over the advancing Neuer. Messi’s double put paid to Ronaldo’s Champions League goal record of the previous night, the Argentine regaining top spot with 77 career Champions League goals. He then set up a third for Neymar, who beat Neuer from close range.
According to BBC, Guardiola had identified the greatest threat to his team before the game.
“There is not a system or coach to stop talent of Messi’s magnitude. The way he has been playing over the last four or five months, you cannot stop him. He is too good.”
How prophetic he would prove.
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Sports)