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Lionel Messi’s masterclass gives Barcelona win over Tottenham

For Tottenham it was a harsh lesson in the realities of the Champions Leagueat the highest level. They found out here that it can be frightening at the top and, if anything, they probably got off lightly bearing in mind the long passages when Lionel Messi seemed utterly determined to leave the impression that, in their entire 136-year history, Spurs can never have encountered a man with his powers.

Messi enforced the point by scoring a couple, hitting the post twice in quick succession, playing a key role in Barcelona’s other two goals and menacing his opponents with such brilliance it was bordering on absurd. Nobody should be surprised that panic set into the Spurs defence because, even by Messi’s standards, it was difficult to think there could be enough superlatives in existence to cover his mastery. Did Mauricio Pochettino’s players show him too much respect? Possibly. But the simple truth is there are times when it seems as though Barcelona’s No 10 might just be visiting this planet.

It was certainly not an easy game to work out in light of the 20-minute period at 3-2 when Spurs, against all the odds, might have saved themselves. They were emboldened by goals from Harry Kane and Érik Lamela and there was a prolonged onslaught from the home team before Messi settled it in the 89th minute. The idea, however, that Spurs might have pinched a draw felt almost bewildering given the exhilarating spells when Barça bewitched Wembley and the various points, at 2-0 and 3-1, when it would not have been a surprise if the game turned into a rout. Barça were both brilliant and vulnerable. But they were so superior, overall, that nobody could possibly argue the victory was undeserved. It was merely a surprise they restricted themselves to only four goals.

Spurs will certainly have a better idea now that, with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen among their absentees, they come up a long way short. Messi’s ability to create his own space, a talent he does not relinquish even when he is down to walking speed, made him the central figure and the home team did not get anyone close enough to disturb the rhythm.

It was a masterclass and amid the disappointment of back-to-back Champions League defeats the Spurs supporters must appreciate it was a privilege to see a man taking the sport to its highest levels. This might not be the most beautifully assembled Barça in their modern history but as long as their artillery includes the five-times Ballon d’Or winner they will have the capacity to make even the most proficient opponents question themselves.

At this level, however, Spurs will also have to learn they cannot expect to get very far by defending as obligingly as they did for at least two of the goals. At one point late on Kieran Trippier could be seen arguing with Eric Dier, a substitute, about the chaos in Tottenham’s back line. Trippier was one of the players at fault for Barça’s final goal and the fit-again Hugo Lloris made a bad decision to leave his goal-line, trying to intercept one of Messi’s expertly weighted passes, before Jordi Alba reached the ball first to set up Philippe Coutinho for the opener, with the goalkeeper stranded and barely 90 seconds on the clock.

Perhaps the credit should go to the Barça attackers for inspiring that kind of trepidation. Luis Suárez may not have scored an away goal in the Champions League since September 2015 but his ability to deceive defenders with his body movement, even without touching the ball sometimes, helped tee up Messi for both his goals. Arthur, another of Barça’s Brazilians, also caught the eye and Ivan Rakitic’s goal to make it 2-0 was the outstanding moment of a thrilling night.

Rakitic was 25 yards out and the ball was bouncing towards him so high it needed a shot of remarkable control to keep it down. It was a lesson in the art of volleying a ball, a firecracker of a shot that flew through the air, skimmed off the post and speared into the net.

Messi was at the heart of everything and it was difficult not to fear for Spurs, 2-0 down, when a slaloming run at the start of the second half took the Argentinian 40 yards only for his shot to thud against a post. A few minutes later Messi did precisely the same again. He was toying with Spurs and it must have been startling for the home supporters to see the little genius at work.

Except that was the point at which the complexion of the evening changed. When Kane created an angle inside the penalty area to fire a splendid shot past the away team’s goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, it felt like a deception that there could be only one goal in it. Perhaps it riled Messi. Three minutes later he picked out Alba on his left. The ball came back his way, Suárez let it go and Messi steered his shot past Lloris.

Still Spurs were not finished. The second half was not even at its midway point when Lamela’s shot deflected in off Clément Lenglet. Spurs were also entitled to feel aggrieved that Kane was not awarded a penalty, but it was fitting that Messi was to have the decisive say, rolling the ball past Lloris after some wretched defending in the home ranks. It was true: Spurs have been playing football since 1882 and in all that time, all those thousands of games, they may never have come up against anyone better.