Barcelona is about to reach its fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final after comprehensively beating a valiant Shakhtar Donetsk side 5-1 at Camp Nou.
The news, however, is that for the fifth consecutive match Lionel Messi failed to get on the score sheet, which is his longest barren run under Pep Guardiola. The Argentine is widely acknowledged as the best player of his generation, but he's still human. That said, few doubt that he'll get back to his scoring ways any time soon. He's merely three goals away from beating Ronaldo's record of 47 goals in a single season (back in 1996/1997), another record that would further establish Messi's legacy.
The main challenge Messi will have to overcome is, curiously, the lack of rivals, just like Ronaldinho did. Back in 2006, Ronaldinho was arguably the best player in the world by a very large margin, just like Messi is now. It gets lonely at the top, however, and Ronaldinho was unable to keep his motivation levels. He experienced a slump and could never find his old self again.
Messi is in a somewhat similar situation; he's a back-to-back Ballon d'Or winner, ready to take home the third this year (is there really any other realistic bid?), and is head and shoulders above everyone else. Players like Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney have been hyped by the media as possible "rivals" to Messi, but it seems clear that, while these are all great players, their talents can't quite match Messi's.
When a player reaches the heights Messi has, it becomes news when he fails to score. When that happens five times in a row, he starts to be questioned. This time, the questioning occurs without good reason. Messi has still worked hard, and most of Barcelona's recent goals have been influenced by him—even if he hasn't really scored.
But enough about Messi. Yesterday, the real star of the show was another genius—Andrés Iniesta. Earlier this year, Don Andrés was considered by his peers and journalists as the second best player of 2010, and he has been making a great case this season to be considered the best player in the world not named Messi. Yesterday's victory has his name all over it. He scored the first goal with great dribbling and finish, and he exquisitely set up Daniel Alves for the second goal in what must go down as one of the best assists of the season.
He was imperious for the rest of the match as well, dribbling opponents and—seemingly at will—finding openings in the defense. He was the undisputed Man of the Match as Barcelona almost secured their semi-final birth. He also saw a yellow card, meaning that he will miss the second leg. However, he will be ready for the semifinals, where he'll be much more necessary. We're talking about a player who dominated the 2009 final despite being far from full fitness.
He's that good. Wayne Rooney and Samuel Eto'o have both hailed Iniesta as the best in the world. While that is certainly debatable, he's a player who Barcelona needs if it wishes to win the Champions League—therefore, his yellow card yesterday turned out to be a blessing a disguise.
Barcelona showed why they are the tournament favorites yesterday—scoring five goals and without even need contributions from its forwards. Iniesta, Alves, Piqué, Keita and Xavi took care of the job. Defending as it did yesterday, however, Barcelona will struggle to contain Real Madrid in the semifinals (assuming both teams retain their huge leads). If not for Shakhtar's wastefulness, Barcelona could have seen in serious trouble. Barcelona need Puyol back, and fast. He might be the difference between success and failure in this competition. Busquets is a world-class defensive midfielder, but not a world-class centre back by any stretch of imagination.
With the La Liga title pretty much secure, Barcelona need Puyol back for what promises to be a tie for the ages against Real Madrid in the semifinals. Real has a squad full of world-class players, and with knockout master José Mourinho at the helm, Real Madrid promises to be a great obstacle to the tournament favorites Barcelona.
Four Clásicos in two weeks seems to be every football fan's dream. For Barcelona, it will be the ultimate test to its treble bid, as Mourinho and his men will try to avenge November's humiliation. It would certainly help if Puyol could return to action, Messi found his scoring boots again and Iniesta kept this fantastic form. It remains to be seen in the next month, as the two Spanish giants battle for supremacy in all fronts.
A final word for Shakhtar: they might not be in Barcelona's league yet, but their progress in the past few years has been astounding. Shakhtar have great players in attack, but their defense is still a bit susceptible. That said, they were quite unlucky to leave Catalunya with such a heavy scoreline. This is definitely not a team to be taken lightly in the coming years.
Shakhtar had an extraordinary campaign this season, beating good teams like Arsenal and Roma. If they keep improving at this rate under Mircea Luscecu, they will soon be able to challenge for the European crown.