The humiliation was too much to bear. Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Pep Guardiola. José Mourinho looked bewildered on the bench. And Sergio Ramos’s brutal, vengeful hack left Spain teammates at each other’s throats four months after they won the World Cup together. Pain was etched across Lionel Messi’s face but it was Real Madrid who had been brought to their knees.
Madrid had arrived at Camp Nou in November 2010 top of La Liga with Mourinho’s reputation – and ego – at its peak. Fresh from a stunning treble with Internazionale that included a Champions League semi-final humbling of Barcelona, ‘el traductor’ swaggered back to the club where he’d translated for Bobby Robson unbeaten in the league since joining their greatest rivals. The master tactician even shed his caution, picking a front four of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María. As Sid Lowe wrote, Madrid “broke rapidly and with murderous intent”. But Barça were almost flawless, and they had Messi.
The Argentinian began with an audacious chip from close to the byline that bounced back off Iker Casillas’s far post. Next came a one-two with Xavi and a pass to Andrés Iniesta, who picked out Xavi bursting into the box. Marcelo’s desperate lunge knocked the ball on to the midfielder’s heel, but the midfielder finished nonchalantly over Casillas.
Barcelona’s passing rhythm was now in full swing and Messi was the conductor. Picking the ball up close to halfway he exchanged passes with Sergio Busquets, rolled the ball under his foot – à la Robert Prosinecki – and hit a pass to the right with the outside of his boot. Xavi’s driven cross-field ball found David Villa and the striker’s centre left Pedro with a tap-in.
Ten of the Spain side that had started the ugly World Cup final victory over the Netherlands were on the pitch. Spain’s triumph was the high point for the tiki-taka style embodied by Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and synonymous with Guardiola’s Barcelona. But Guardiola despised the term. “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” he would later explain. “You have to pass the ball with a clear intention. To overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch.”
Messi’s second-half performance personified that philosophy; his devastating execution of the through-ball from his favoured inside-right position ripping Madrid to shreds. First he took out three defenders with a pass only for Xavi to be denied by Casillas and then the side netting.
Next he drifted away from Xabi Alonso and found Villa, exploding off the back of Pepe to fire into the corner. Better was to come. Messi picked up the ball 10 yards inside his own half and drove forward. A drop of the shoulder and a jink inside left Ricardo Carvalho and Sami Khedira flailing before a sublime 40-yard pass cut out Ramos. Once again the ball never left the turf and Villa’s finish was unerring, poked first-time through Casillas’s legs. Vision, timing, touch, movement and ruthlessness combining for a goal of rare beauty.
Forget the white handkerchiefs, Madrid had raised the white flag. Carvalho should have been sent off for a cynical handball, having earlier escaped after an elbow on Messi. Ramos did see red for his assault on Madrid’s tormentor, pushing Puyol and Xavi in the face as he skulked off.
Messi hadn’t scored for the first time in 10 games. He wasn’t involved in Barcelona’s fifth goal, tucked home by Jeffrén from Bojan’s cross. But he was there as the entire squad danced on the touchline in celebration while Gerard Piqué – and most of the crowd – held five fingers aloft to taunt Madrid.
I wasn’t there. But in a forgettable London pub I’d witnessed the most memorable of performances by the best player and the best team I have seen.