Some things you just know.
We knew Barça was going to successfully mount the Milan remuntada after Messi scored that absurd, phone booth bit of impossibility, a goal beyond the imagination of not only the four men bracketing him but the keeper, us folks watching at home and pretty much everybody else. It was inspirational even as sport is rife with cliche, none more more annoying than the one about a player being an inspiration to his teammates.
Yet for all of the talk about what kind of player Lionel Messi is and the goals that he scores, less time is spent on the mental aspect of Messidependencia, the one thing that makes him absolutely crucial. It underscores the fairly massive understatement that Lionel Messi will be the most important person on the pitch for Barça as the quest for the impossible begins against PSG, but not just for his football.
Luis Enrique essentially answered, “No shit,” to the assertion that he had Messidependencia. The only real way to deal with Messidependencia is to not have the player available, forcing Barça to learn to play without him. If Messi is on the pitch, everyone looks to him, and the team goes as he goes.
In the first leg against PSG, Messi couldn’t be arsed, and neither could most of his teammates. The 4-0 was generous. It could have been worse. Sphinx Messi was present, and Barça was doomed. It isn’t even that his output is absent but rather, his psychological effect is gone.
Compare that with the Celta match on the weekend. Messi was electric from the outset, that absurd goal that he scored just icing on the cake of a brilliant, engaged, intense performance. The team picked up on that, and Celta didn’t have a chance.
The mind strains to think of a match where a barely ambulatory, stone-faced Messi didn’t lead to a similarly drab performance by his teammates, even as some of those matches — well, most — resulted in victories. It’s hard to argue with the kind of quality that Barça brings to the pitch.
Recall the 1970 NBA playoffs, New York Knicks against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Knicks’ best player, Willis Reed, was wrestling with an injury. It was assumed he wouldn’t play. But when the starting lineups were announced, there came Reed, limping, face frozen in a determined grimace. The Lakers were done, the Knicks were elevated and sport was captivated. For Barça, Messi is that. Every match, every minute.
What’s crazy is that the lineup, no matter who Luis Enrique chooses to roll out, is studded with some of the best players in the world, assassins. And they all look to a pint-sized man, a dude who would languish on the sidelines of local field pickup matches if you didn’t know who he was. And it’s crucial.
Mentality counts for a lot in spoort, the belief — collective belief — that something good can happen. Everyone has to believe, and something has to happen that makes the other team stop believing. When the New England Patriots came back against the Atlenta Falcons, the shift is difficult to pinpoint, even now, but it was real. The Patriots started to believe, and the Falcons stopped believing.
Against Milan, Barça had two goals before it all really sunk in. Niang hit the post because he didn’t quite believe. Belief is a quality that comes from many places, but on great teams, it needs a talismanic player. The Chicago Bulls weren’t crap before and after Michael Jordan solely because of player quality. Jordan hated to lose, and that quality infused every player on the team. Each of them was elevated by his mere presence. Great players bring a psychological edge that buttresses even bench warmers. They don’t want to let down the man. But the Messi effect goes beyond even that when he is on the pitch.
So today, watch Messi. Watch him in the warmup, watch his face, watch the hop in his step. The remuntada is impossible. It’s a 4-goal bridge too far to an excellent Paris St.-Germain team. But if the greatest player in the history of the game is connected, fully connected, physically and psychologically, PSG should worry. And so should history.