It’s been a while since I last wrote an article. I have to admit that this season, I’ve been devoid of inspiration. Everywhere we looked, the magic seemed to have faded from the game. Chelsea were boring on their way to the English Premier League title. Bayern predictably stormed through the Bundesliga, Juventus did likewise in Italy. Spain seems to have returned to form as Atletico will be replaced as champions by one of two Spanish old firm teams in Barcelona and Real Madrid.
So, the magic was gone? Until yesterday. May 6th, 2015. Of all people (because I’m a Ronaldo fan), Lionel Messi brought the magic back to football and made me stare at my ball and my boots for hours on end wishing my ankle wasn’t sore. Yes Cristiano, you’ve been incredible this season – especially for a 30 year old – but my word, Lionel. Hello! It’s you I’ve been looking for.
Last year Barcelona went up against Atletico Madrid and did absolutely nothing. The year before they went up against Bayern Munich at this stage and were thoroughly embarrassed. The year before that, Messi missed a penalty as Chelsea stole a semi-final victory in sweet revenge for the refereeing horror show of 2009. Today, Lionel Messi made sure that Barcelona would not suffer the same fate once again.
It looked like Bayern would do just about enough to contain them, but we all forgot just how clutch Lionel Messi can be. It’s not really our fault. It has been a while since Messi has shown up when it really matters…in a do-or-die situation. Look at the World Cup final as an example. Not to say that he’s been bad. Messi has been out of this world every year since he became a professional but it’s his clutchness, for want of a better word, that I began to question. He erased every doubt in my mind after a left foot near-post stunner past Manuel Neuer; the best goalkeeper in the world. He then made a vine out of Jerome Boateng by putting him on the floor before nonchalantly chipping the keeper.
Just when we thought the show was over, Messi played in Neymar for the third. My heart is beating fast just thinking about the events of the match. A perfect performance from the perfect player. As good as this Barcelona side are, they were imperfect last night and they needed their talisman to put them on his back to win this game. Barcelona will surely now go to the Champions League final in Berlin and they’d have no chance without Lionel Messi’s performance. This was perhaps the most clutch I’ve ever seen, and we’ll be telling our children about it. Although Jerome Boating may not.
The hysteria Messi caused got me thinking. Who else has produced an incredibly clutch performance in a Champions League semi-final? Here are my candidates.
Lionel Messi vs Real Madrid 2011
I’ve been debating Mohaned all day about whether the Messi double vs Bayern or the Messi double in the Clasico semi-final is better. For me the Bayern double and assist was a better all round performance because for the most part, the Madrid game was rough and subdued and lacked flair (mainly because Mourinho was coach). Today, Lionel was in full flow all game. Against Real Madrid, though, he scored a tap in and then made a mockery of the Madrid back-line with a wonderful slaloming run. Unfortunately the game didn’t open up until Pepe got himself sent off, but still we can all bow down to Messi’s brilliance on the day.
Robert Lewandowski vs Real Madrid, 2013
Poor Real Madrid. Another semi-final and another player had the game of his life against them. Robert Lewandowski scored four goals against Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final clash. The third goal was pure class. The turn and the quick feet were simply sublime. For the fact that he got himself a super hat-trick this could be the greatest semi-final performance of all time. Safe to say Lewandowski had an out of body experience, and as a result Jose Mourinho was out the door at Real Madrid.
Kaka vs Manchester United, 2007
The mood at Old Trafford was good as Manchester United had just smashed Roma 7-1 in the game before. In fact, the game ended 3-2 after a late winner from a young dynamo named Wayne Rooney. We could have remembered this match for the never-say-die attitude of Manchester United. However, for many the story isn’t about any of that. The story of the match is the performance of that year’s Ballon D’or winner, Kaka. Kaka never played the game at full tilt, he seemed to glide across the pitch and in this encounter he glided his way past the Manchester United defense on two occasions. The highlight was when he gracefully squeezed his way through Heinze and Evra who subsequently crashed into each other like calamitous villains in a children’s cartoon. How beautiful it was to watch destruction created from a moment of beauty.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Arsenal, 2009
Earlier in the season Arsenal beat Man United 2-1 at the Emirates. United had a point to prove against a courageous but injury-hit Arenal team. In the first leg, United won 1-0 in a cagey affair so it was all on the line in the away leg. Up steps Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s movement pulled Arsenal apart all game and the Gunners couldn’t get near him. He was fortunate to get an assist to Ji-Sung Park after a slip by Kieran Gibbs. However, he pulled off one of those wonder moments when he slammed a 35 yard free kick past a hapless Manuel Almunia. The ball was hit so hard it would’ve broken the Spaniard’s wrists if he got to it. “Too far for Ronaldo to think about it….OH!” That quote has become famous thanks to Crisitano. He capped off his wonderful display by beginning a picture book counter attack with a back heel to Park who played in Rooney. The Englishman sprinted to the Arsenal box and guided it across for Ronaldo to apply the finish on the slide. Ronaldo started it, then he finished it and that was the simply the story of this match.
I’ve chosen to focus on semi-finals because these are the ties where people tend to stand up and be counted. Anything can happen in a final game but there’s something about the desperation to make the final that brings the best out of players. It’s typically where we see how clutch a player is. We remember Roy Keane’s heroics for Manchester United in 1999 for instance. Michael Ballack vs Manchester United in 2001 is another wonderful example. I chose games where players destroyed the opposition in a purely attacking sense. There is, however, one clutch performance that may trump all of these and I have to mention it despite the fact that it came in a quarter-final.
Ronaldo “El Fenomeno” produced what I believe the greatest individual performance in the UEFA Champions League more than 12 years ago. Manchester United huffed and puffed but every time they did, Ronaldo had an answer and then some. There isn’t much more for me to say. I was speechless then and I’m speechless now.
So thank you, Lionel, for bringing back the magic and reminding me of the moments when the best players put their teams on their backs. Have your say and vote for the best clutch semi-final performance.