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Lionel Messi Pulls the Strings as Barcelona Vanquish Limp Manchester City

Rik Sharma@@riksharma_Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2015

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CAMP NOU, BARCELONA — The history books will show that Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic were the men who sunk Manchester City over 180 minutes, but to leave it at that would be to ignore the evidence of both matches. Two matches in which the man who pulled all the strings was Lionel Messi.

In his press conference after the game, Luis Enrique enthused, not for the first time about Barcelona's star player.

He's not just the best player in the world right now, explained Enrique, but he's the best player of all time.

"We all know what Leo Messi is," Enrique said. "He is without doubt the best player in the world... but also the best in the history of football."

Enrique is right, whether Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo fans like it or not. The Portuguese forward is, without doubt, a footballer of the highest order. But people compare him to Messi, while Messi is compared to Diego Maradona, to Pele. Two all-time greats, but Messi has surpassed them.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 18:  David Silva of Manchester City tackles Lionel Messi of Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Barcelona and Manchester City at Camp Nou on March 18, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo b
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BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 18: Lionel Messi of Barcelona takes a free kick during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Barcelona and Manchester City at Camp Nou on March 18, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty
Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Ronaldo is a machine, a killer, someone who rams goal after goal down the throats of his opponents and anyone else who dares cross his path.

But when Messi doesn't score, like he did in these games, he can still be, and often is, the most important player on the pitch.

Barcelona's talisman crafted the goal. He had the ball on the right, with City's defenders drawn to him like moths to light. As they were sucked in, Messi bypassed the defensive posse with a neat chip to Rakitic.

Take nothing away from the Croat, who dinked the ball over the excellent Joe Hart and into the net quite superbly, but the goal was shaped gently by Messi, like an artist creating a clay sculpture.

Messi's name rang out around the Camp Nou, as it so often does, but perhaps the biggest sign of Messi's ability to confound and conjure was when he whipped the ball away from James Milner in Barcelona's right-back position. Messi shifted his body shape, unbalancing the midfielder, flicked the ball through the Englishman's legs and was off, starting a new attack.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 18: Lionel Messi of Barcelona runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Barcelona and Manchester City at Camp Nou on March 18, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, back at the Camp Nou to watch the game, put his hands to his face in disbelief in the stands.

Pep Guardiola's reaction to Messi nutmegging Milner was ace. https://t.co/gm0Z1soVVz #BarcavManCity

— Paddy Power (@paddypower) March 18, 2015

If Messi can amaze Pep, a man who helped the Argentine become the player he is over several successful years at the Camp Nou, then what hope do the opposition have?

With Messi at his peak, producing the finest form he has conjured since 2011, Barcelona were electric. In the first half, just like the first half of the game at the Etihad, they dominated. They were the only team in it. City's players looked like they would rather be anywhere else.

The only thing between Barcelona and a hockey score was their own poor finishing. That, and one of the best goalkeeping performances seen at the Camp Nou in some time.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Joe Hart was outstanding, denying Barcelona's famous attacking trident when it seemed impossible. Neymar could have netted five on his own.

Joe hart has stopped a mauling here. Top keeping

— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) March 18, 2015

Vincent Kompany, Martin Demichelis and Bacary Sagna left the stadium sick of the sight of the Brazilian's back, which they saw plenty of times as he zipped past them.

Unfortunately for Neymar, Hart played with considerably more steel than his team-mates. Luis Suarez was also left frustrated by the Englishman, whose goal lived a charmed life.

Messi nearly scored at the end, but Hart was in the way again. Although he couldn't find the net, it should not be forgotten that Messi was the architect of this triumph.

The Clasico is looming, as is a Champions League quarter-final draw, and on this form Real and every other team in Europe will be wary of the threat carried by Messi and Co.

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