Lionel Messi and the greatest goal of all-time
Lionel Messi drops deeper than ever to receive the ball. Just inside the gentle arc of a congested centre-circle, he caresses a delicate five-yard pass from the metronomic Busquets. Messi turns, torments and teases. Real Madrid look laboured, weary of body and mind after eighty-six minutes of gruelling frustration. José Mourinho, exiled to the stand after a typical outburst, can only watch in angst. Even he is powerless now.
Engaged by Lassana Diarra, Messi suddenly explodes into another realm, that inhabited by special people with special abilities, like dancers and poets and artists. Leo saw a masterpiece unfurl in his searing imagination, then dared to make it reality on the sacrosanct Bernabéu turf.
A darting pass was knocked into Busquets, whose perpetual motion provided an outlet, a fulcrum, a catalyst for Messi's beautiful plan. In turn, the slight Argentinian, razor sharp at the peak of physical conditioning, scampered through a Madrid blockade to secure an intricate lay-off. Sergio was timelessly laconic, stroking an innocent pass that Messi made marvellous.
Now, Real were exposed. Now, panic reigned. Now, Messi burst anew past the drowsy challenges of Diarra and Alonso. He travelled with such death-defying pace as to be transformed into a hazy blur of claret-and-blue, carrying the football with subtle touches of inimitable control.
For a split second, Sergio Ramos, among the greatest but most enigmatic of central defenders, struggled to grasp the epochal magnitude of this moment, his rushed decision to confront Messi failing to consider the sense of historical awakening slowly bathing this hallowed ground. At awe-inspiring speed, Messi delivers an abiding provocation, opening his body like any old player before darting at a sublime tangent past the helpless defender.
At this point, the Madrid institution was quacking in its boots. Here was the definitive icon of a sworn enemy painting the most riveting of portraits in their house, on their turf, against their warriors. The sense of desperation was palpable.
Raul Albiol prepared himself for martyrdom with an opportunistic swipe, but Leo was hell-bent on iconoclasm. In somehow fashioning an angle to bypass the flailing Albiol, stave-off the resurgent Ramos and beat a retreating Marcelo, Messi authored his own laws of motion. It's a wonder of modern science how he maintained control of that football amid such frantic attention.
As Leo burrowed into the only tranche of grass available, a worldwide audience of millions watched on in stunned disbelief, in rapturous fascination, in hope. We wanted him to complete this most stupendous of attacking moves. The startling demonstration of spellbinding ability left many stricken. I didn't so much rise to my feet as squirm endlessly on the couch. I couldn't so much scream coherent encouragement as moan achingly at the beauty of it all. My eyes bulged as Leo scythed across the penalty area. The moment was nigh.
After conceiving an idea forty yards from goal; after detonating the shackles of Diarra and reaching a gear that Alonso does not possess, after skipping joyfully like a child over the hot Madrid soil; after daring Ramos and taking him to the cleaners; after surviving Albiol's assault with supernatural ingenuity; after holding them all at bay in that gory moment before glory, Lionel Messi was faced by the greatest goalkeeper of a modern football age. Ultimately, Iker Casillas was similarly helpless, lurching in despair as little Leo brushed nonchalantly past him at an angle unreachable by mere mortals.
The English language contains no word to accurately describe how Messi finished his magnum opus. It wasn't a flick, a kick or even a shot. Leo almost kissed the ball with his dainty right foot, whispering as it trickled home.
With nine touches of the football, Messi travelled forty yards, beat five defenders, gave birth to innumerable dimensions of sporting excellence, and steered past the world's best goalkeeper his fifty-second goal of a remarkable season.
That his virtuoso performance occurred during the first leg of a tense Champions League semi-final between ancient enemies hardly seemed to matter.
The Bernabéu was stunned, watching in muted astonishment the gleeful celebrations of a blessed maverick. All around the penalty area, Real bodies were strewn like fallen soldiers on a battlefield. One by one, they had been engaged, exposed and exterminated by the marauding Messi. One by one, they met their maker.
In the annals of football history, has a more magnificent goal ever been scored? I doubt it. Messi's magic on that fateful spring night was a mesmeric entanglement of football's most iconic moments. It was Maradona running with enchantment past Beardsley and Reid and Butcher. It was Bergkamp spinning and firing against Newcastle. It was Pelé founding a new echelon with his famous dummy against a hapless Uruguayan goalkeeper.
It was the greatest piece of athletic theatre I have ever witnessed, and rarely will we see such brilliance happen again.