Dismantling Barcelona's 2-1 victory over Sevilla—a heart-stopping, vital encounter that enthralled fans and neutrals alike over 90 minutes—is not easy.
Where do you start? The incredible energy offered by Jorge Sampaoli’s team in the first half? Barcelona’s midfield that disappeared in the opening 45 and then dominated the second? Luis Suarez’s continued struggles in front of goal? Luis Suarez’s winning goal? Did Sevilla simply tire or did Luis Enrique’s half-time adjustments make a crucial difference?
All valid entry points, jostling for second position. Second behind the outstanding performer, in this match, of this season, of almost every year in the last decade.
Gerard Pique agrees. He took to Twitter after watching the game and only had one comment to make.
“If the Ballon d’Or was given to the best player in the world, Leo would have won it every year since 2009. Another level,” wrote the centre-back, in Spanish.
He was referring to Lionel Messi, of course. The Lionel Messi who, with one deft stroke of his left foot, put Barcelona back into a game they didn’t really deserve to still be in.
The Lionel Messi who was the architect for Luis Suarez’s eventual winner, and the Lionel Messi who spent the second half playing as Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and himself rolled into one.
In the 42nd minute, Messi put Barcelona level after they had been battered by Sevilla, who were leading 1-0 thanks to Vitolo’s early goal.
Running on to the ball on the edge of the box, he did not stop to control it—no, that would have slowed things down too much. Messi touched it just once, flicking his foot out to deliciously curve the ball into the bottom-left corner.
It was a touch of genius that Barcelona pounced upon like a parched sailor stranded on a desert island who stumbles across a source of fresh, running water in the middle of nowhere.
To that point, Barcelona had deserved nothing, with Sevilla’s energy and running preventing them from stringing their attacking, midfield and defensive lines together, and the hosts launched attack after attack of their own.
The second half was a different story. Barcelona were galvanised by Messi’s goal—no doubt also by a roaring admonishment from coach Luis Enrique at the interval.
They came out flying, and although they just scored once more, they could have had a hatful—much like Sevilla in the first half.
Messi was the man who created Suarez’s winning goal, drifting forward dangerously from the midfield towards the box before playing the Uruguayan in with a pass that nobody in a white shirt read.
It left Suarez with the simple task of tucking the ball home, although that was something that proved too difficult in the first half after Messi teed him up.
Suarez hailed Messi after the game. Per Sport, he said: "Leo can do everything, in any position. He makes the difference, is intelligent and knows how to find the space. He can play where he wants."
Messi never plays only from his right-wing starting position, but he wandered more than usual against Sevilla, helping Barcelona construct the play in midfield, allowing them to win a battle that was lost in the first half against the excellent Steven N’Zonzi and Samir Nasri.
“Leo has the capacity to interpret what’s going on anywhere on the pitch and play anywhere,” added Luis Enrique, according to Sport's Jordi Gil. “There’s no-one you can compare him to. Our objective is to find him as much as we can. Leo was great.”
Messi has been great since he returned from injury. He was the only member of the attacking trident who managed to score in the 3-1 defeat against Manchester City on Tuesday in the Champions League, and he's notched eight goals in six games.
But to tell a tale woven from only his brilliance would not do justice to the team as a whole, who pulled themselves off the floor and stood back up at the end of a tricky week.
They left Manchester with their tail between their legs after a thorough beating in the second half, and it would have been easy for them to go under after Sevilla started so strongly at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
They hadn’t been defeated at home in La Liga or the Champions League, until Barcelona came to town.
Sergi Roberto, like against City, made a mistake for the first goal, but his second-half display was not one of a player cowed by what had happened.
Nor was that of Lucas Digne, who was given a torrid time by Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas in midweek but stood up well to the threat of Mariano and Pablo Sarabia.
Neither those of the centre-backs, with Samuel Umtiti continuing his impressive start to life at Barcelona, while Javier Mascherano’s second-half display brought to mind his heroics for Argentina at World Cup 2014.
The forward was beaten to the ball by Luciano Vietto in the first half, with his compatriot firing a strike across Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal. “That will not happen again,” thought the veteran. And it didn’t.
Without the sterling defensive work put in, Messi’s contributions have no base to stand on.
Everything went right from the 42nd minute. Neymar was having a frustrating game, but when he dribbled in from the left and angled his cutback into Messi’s path, he made amends.
His second-half display was significantly improved, and time and time again he caused panic among Sevilla’s defenders as he skipped forward, carrying the ball like Messi used to do more frequently when he was younger.
That’s not to say the Argentinian can’t still move with it, as he demonstrated in an eye-popping dribble that dumbfounded three Sevilla players and ended with an effort that whistled narrowly over the crossbar.
If Messi’s strike had found the top corner, then it would have ranked among his very finest goals.
Suarez, too, emerged from his recent slumber to net the winner—and picked up the yellow card he needed in the second half to get himself banned for the game against Malaga and ensure he will not be suspended for the Clasico—while midfielder Denis Suarez enjoyed a transformation of his own in the second half.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic improved after the break, but Denis was a different player entirely.
Luis Enrique said, per Spanish television channel Movistar:
I would like to highlight Denis Suarez. When he’s come off the bench, he’s taken advantage with performances at an extremely high level. It’s not easy to play when you don’t have many minutes or space to perform.
With Denis you can give him a minute, zero or 90, and he always has a good attitude, and this is what we want from all the players. You have to congratulate him and hope he continues like this. He’s a clear example of what it is to be a professional.
And his team’s performance was a clear example of how to be professional in a tough situation. It doesn’t happen without Messi, but it also doesn’t happen with only Messi.
These were three valuable points for Barcelona that keep them two behind Real Madrid, in touch with the leaders and waiting for the Clasico and the chance to surge above them.
If the Barcelona of the second half come out to play, with Messi in this kind of form and his team-mates an impressive unit around him, that could well happen.
Rik Sharma is Bleacher Report's lead Barcelona correspondent. All information and quotes obtained firsthand unless specified. Follow him on Twitter here: @riksharma_.