WE are now able to confirm Lionel Messi is, as we have long suspected, the world’s greatest footballer. At 22 and barely 5ft 7in, he can happily claim that accolade 65 days before the World Cup kicks off in South Africa.
A quite stunning 21-minute hat-trick at the Nou Camp tonight – and a fourth goal in the dying minutes to make it 4-1 - simply beggared belief. Breathless, bemused, bewitched, we watched as he took Barcelona smoothly from doom to boom. The Champions League quarter-final second-leg against Arsenal belonged to one man, one little genius.
Arsenal's goalscorer Nicklas Bendtner admitted afterwards: "If you have to lose a game, you want to lose because the other team is playing you off the pitch. It's difficult to be behind at the Nou Camp. Messi is a phenomenal player."
A remarkably calm Arsene Wenger, facing the prospect of a sixth trophy-free season, said: "The difficulty with Messi is he’s not always in the game. But when he is, he’s unstoppable. He’s the only player who can change direction at such a pace. He is the best player in the world right now. What can you do?”
It’s hard to offer this summary of his goals for a sports journalist who named his dog Charlie George in 1972, but here it is:
THE GOOD: On 21 minutes, he crashed the equaliser into the top corner from the edge of the box with his right foot barely a minute after Arsenal had gone ahead.
THE MAD: After 37 minutes, he poached the ball in the box and chipped in with his right after a deft touch with his left to give the home side the lead.
THE MESSI: After 37 minutes, clear through, he produced the outrageous, slipping his boot under the ball to lob a flummoxed Almunia and lift the Nou Camp’s 90,000 to a mighty victory roar.
THE TERRIBLY MESSI: Just three minutes to go and Messi mesmerises the Arsenal defence, first Eboue, then Vermaelen, Almunia saves but is beaten on the rebound - through his legs.
And that really was the story of a grim night for Arsenal – it would be churlish to mention they were also plagued by another display of fussy refereeing from the whistle-happy Wolfgang Stark.
Again, like the 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium last week, it was a game to remember. Twenty minutes in, with the ref ruining it and Manuel Almunia making a sharp early save, Abou Diaby committed a foul on the halfway line.
For once, Stark waved play on, Samir Nasri made a nifty tackle, fed Abou Diaby... who found Theo Walcott just on-side. He broke clear but, inexplicably, decided to play in Nicklas Bendtner with only the goalkeeper to beat. Bendtner's first effort was blocked but the long leg of the floored Great Dane stretched out and bang, 1-0 to silence the whole of Catalunia.
That fiver on Arsenal to win 1-0 at 12-1 looked a good investment. Briefly. Incredible scenes in the Collins lounge and all over north London (and a small corner of the Nou Camp). Seconds later, Diaby might have found Walcott on the break again... but he chose Bendtner down the left and good possession was squandered.
Up the other end surged Barcelona and there was Messi, that giant in every aspect other than height, to crash home the equaliser barely a minute after Arsenal's unexpected opener.
Walcott certainly had the Catalans quaking. Sergio was required to bring one lesson in Theology to a premature end but escaped a yellow card.
Seconds later, Denilson’s shrewd slide tackle clearly took the ball but Messie did the old double roll and Arsenal’s Brazilian was in the book. Disgraceful refereeing. But then, as Charlie George will tell you, I am one-eyed with rose-tinted glasses.
And of course, footballing justice dictated that it was Messi who got on the end of Barca’s second with 37 minutes gone with Gael Clichy scrambling to cover and Almunia gone to ground. A great finish, Arsenal out-numbered.
Still, the first half-an-hour hadn’t been as bad as the first 30 minutes at the Emirates. Arsenal were in it, Barca weren’t having it easy.
As their boss Pep Guardiola said in the build-up: “There’s no point in being the best side in the world and losing.”
So they didn’t. Messi’s hat-trick,his fourth this year, came before half-time as he broke clear past a creaking defence bereft of William Gallas and Sol Campbell. With the world watching, he refused to take the easy route. As he swept in, the Argentine simply lobbed the advancing Almunia, face on, escaping his outstretched gloves by inches to find the net. Incredible. Andy Gray on Sky was loving every moment, but then he is Scottish. Clearly, Messi is world class. But, as the Denilson incident had indicated earlier, he’s a cheat. I'm taking stick for saying that but hey, I can only write it as I see it.
Messi was clear again before the break but his touch was heavy. He’s not perfect. But at 22 after spending puberty on growth hormones, the bloke is pretty damn close to it. He doesn't need to do the full lottery roll-over every time somebody tackles him.
Four minutes into the second half he was a touch away from goal number four as Arsenal, understandably rattled, attempted to unflabber their gasts.
In the 50 minute, Bendtner had the ghost of a chance but he was too slow pulling the trigger. The Dane is a tad short at this level, oh for a fit Robin van Persie or an elderly Thierry Henry, left on the bench by Barca against the club for whom he still holds every major scoring record.
In the Sky commentary box, Gray assured us Barca are just too good, Messi just too perfect. Why are there so many Jocks doing English commentary? This was a time for the old bulldog spirit.
A week before at this stage, Arsenal had been two goals down but rallied to draw 2-2. And a 3-3 draw at the Nou Camp would have put the Gunners through to the last four against Inter Milan, who had earlier seen off CSKA on the artificial pitch in Moscow.
After 72 minutes, Gael Clichy’s cross found Bendtner’s head with what looked a great chance. He hit the post when it looked easier to score – but the offside flag had been raised.
The awful Tomas Rosicky was then replaced by striker Eduardo as Arsene Wenger attempted to work the miracle.
But by then, it was too late. The spell had been cast by the tiny wizard. Thank God Messi’s got Diego “Hand of God/Face of Dog” Maradona running the show for Argentina in South Africa later in the year, otherwise he’d be nailed on to win the World Cup too.
But he wasn’t finished with Arsenal yet. With three minutes left and the game over, he turned the otherwise impressive Emmanuel Eboue, beat the unimpressive Thomas Vermaelen and forced Almunia into yet another save. But the rebound was stuck firmly through the fellow-Spaniard’s legs to make it 4-0.
That was his first four-goal burst in football. Just another stage in the growing process for the little lad from Rosario. Barca 4, Arsenal 1. That made it 6-3 on aggregate. And as Arsene Wenger contemplates a sixth year of dusty trophy cabinets, Barca can contemplate just how wise they were to provide growth hormone treatment to an 11-year-old crying out for growth hormone treatment.
That’s not a tall story. That’s the miracle of Messi.