Perfect Punchline: The Genius of Lionel Messi's 2nd Goal Against Bayern

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2015

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, scores his second goal past Bayern's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer during the Champions League semifinal first leg soccer match between Barcelona and Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, May 6, 2015.  (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Wayne Rooney has spoken of how when he watched Lionel Messi lead Barcelona’s 5-0 deconstruction of Real Madrid in November 2010, he found himself on his feet applauding in his living room.

Many, presumably, had a similar experience after his second goal against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, a goal that was both beautiful and joyous.

Last year, as he toiled through the World Cup, Messi’s father was widely quoted as telling Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that it were as if his son's legs "weigh 100 kilos each"—and although the quote was subsequently denied, the description seemed an apt one of describing a player who looked weary.

This year, as Messi has returned to his very best, all thoughts of logs had gone until he burst into the box after 80 minutes, shuffled left and darted right to leave poor Jerome Boateng toppling like a mighty tree in the forest, slowly crashing to earth as Messi went on by.

“I have a lot of respect for Messi and for everything he has achieved,” Manuel Neuer had told L’Equipe in the buildup to the game. “He is very humble. But it’s crucial to show authority when we meet on the pitch and show him who’s boss. I did the same in the World Cup final and this worked out pretty well.”

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring a goal as a dejected Manuel Neuer of Bayern Muenchen looks on during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, first leg match between FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Muenchen at Camp N
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Neuer had played well at the Camp Nou but, as Messi dinked the ball past him, he must have regretted those words.

In the first leg during last year’s quarter-final, Danny Welbeck found himself clean through against Neuer and, despite having been told that the goalkeeper tends to stand up and so can be vulnerable—if a goalkeeper that good in one on ones can be said to be vulnerable—to an early low shot, attempted a dink. Neuer saved easily; it was that moment, the Independent's Ian Herbert reported, that Manchester United's staff lost faith in Welbeck.

Messi, though, has a staggering capacity to understand situations. He is a minimalist genius; he is capable of mesmerising skill, but his greatest talent is his capacity to select the simplest trick in his arsenal to succeed in any given situation.

He paused fractionally, saw Neuer begin to spread himself and go down—as he had done so successfully in denying Luis Suarez in the first half—and lifted the ball over him in one smooth, barely detectable movement.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Rafinha raced back, but the gentle loop of the ball evaded his desperate lunge. In When We Were Kings, the documentary about the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman world title bout in Kinshasa in 1974, George Plimpton speaks of the aesthetic of Ali’s final punch.

He has struck the decisive blow, and Foreman is collapsing, and Ali is poised, fist back, ready in case another blow is needed.

Other boxers may have delivered it anyway, made sure Foreman was going down, made it harder for him to recover, but Ali showed restraint because Ali was an artist and understood that another punch would have destroyed the perfection of Foreman’s gently inevitable fall.

It was the same with that Messi goal. It wouldn’t have mattered, of course, in terms of the result had Rafinha touched it; by the time he arrived the ball was already over the line. But it would have marred the aesthetic.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06:  Lionel Messi (not seen) of Barcelona scores his team's second goal despite the efforts from Rafinha of Bayern Muenchen during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, first leg match between FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Muenchen at
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Thankfully, Messi’s shot had just enough pace on it to escape his stretching toe, and so his desperation added to the tableau: Three Bayern players left prone, able to touch neither ball nor man.

Speaking of the great Austrian forward Matthias Sindelar and his appeal to the coffee-house intellectuals who revered him, the theatre critic Alfred Polgar wrote that “he had brains in his legs and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punchline, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.”

What was Messi’s dink but a punchline, what was that goal but a small, perfectly honed work of art?

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