Magical Messi ruins Guardiola homecoming
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi struck twice and set up Neymar in the final 13 minutes as Pep Guardiola’s return to the Camp Nou as Bayern Munich coach ended in a 3-0 defeat in the first-leg of their Champions League semi-final.
On his 100th appearance in European football, Messi’s double moved him back ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as the all-time leading scorer with 77 in the Champions League and Barca to the brink of their first final in four years.
Manuel Neuer had kept Bayern in the game with a string of fine saves, but was helpless as Messi drilled home the opener from the edge of the area in the 77th minute and then delightfully chipped the German three minutes later.
Messi then fed Neymar in stoppage time to roll past Neuer and hand Bayern an almost impossible task in next week’s second-leg.
Guardiola had described Messi as “unstoppable” in the pre-match press conference and Barca defender Gerard Pique agreed, whilst also heaping praise upon the Catalans’ defence which prevented the visitors from having a single shot on target.
“Guardiola knows Messi well and knows that if he is inspired no one can stop him. He scored two fantastic goals,” said Pique.
“We played a sensational match. Defensively we were very good because that a team like Bayern doesn’t have a shot on target is sensational. Then we took our chances up front and did a lot of damage on the counter-attack.”
Despite a fine individual performance, Neuer admitted he had been outdone by Messi.
“I think the first goal is what did it. A player like Messi is hard to stop,” said the German international.
“Sometimes you are the winner, sometimes you’re the loser in those one-on-ones.”
Guardiola is Barca’s most successful ever coach having won 14 trophies in four years between 2008 and 2012 and was given a warm reception by the home fans as he took his seat for the first time in the away dugout.
However, his early tactical plan to play three at the back nearly proved costly.
Bayern’s intense pressing was forcing Barca to play long more than they are accustomed to, but it nearly worked to perfection when Messi’s headed flick-on sent Luis Suarez clear behind the Bayern defence after 12 minutes.
Neuer, though, stood up brilliantly to divert the Uruguayan’s effort to safety with an outstretched right leg.
Suarez turned provider for the next opening as his low cross picked out Neymar only for his goalbound effort to strike Rafinha and deflect behind.
The visitors then had a huge chance of their own as Thomas Mueller picked out the unmarked Robert Lewandowski, but the Polish international — who was playing with a protective facemask after suffering a broken nose and cheekbone just last week — sliced his effort wide.
Neuer who came to Bayern’s rescue again six minutes before the break as he spread himself to deny Dani Alves as he latched onto Andres Iniesta’s through ball.
Bayern started the second period the brighter, but it was once again Neuer who was the busiest goalkeeper as handled a driven shot with Messi after a neat one-two with Neymar.
The two combined once more moments later but Neymar just couldn’t bring Messi’s lofted pass under his control and Neuer galloped from his line to clear the danger.
However, Messi was not so forgiving when offered room on the edge of the area for the first time as he fired past Neuer at his near post 13 minutes from time.
Three minutes later he produced an even more sublime finish as the Argentine received Dani Alves’s pass and left Jerome Boateng stumbling to the ground before dinking the ball over the advancing Neuer on his weaker right foot.
Suarez should have made it 3-0 moments later when he raced onto Neymar’s through ball but blazed wildly over.
Yet, Neymar was cooler when bearing down on Neuer in stoppage time from Messi’s pass as he this time found the back of the net and all but secured Barca’s passage to the final in Berlin early next month.
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