Lionel Messi had said it was time Barcelona won the Champions League again and he played like a man on a mission on Tuesday, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of PSV Eindhoven.
It was his eighth treble in the competition, taking him above the record of seven he shared with Cristiano Ronaldo to sit unmatched at the top of the list.
Messi marked other milestones too. He has now scored in 14 different Champions League campaigns, with only Raul and Ryan Giggs ahead of him on 15 and 16 respectively. Three times, Messi has hit hat-tricks in his opening game.
“He makes the extraordinary look ordinary,” said Barcelona’s coach Ernesto Valverde.
“Messi is a man of his word,” wrote Marca. “He said he wanted this Champions and he led by example.”
The first goal was impressive enough. Ousmane Dembele had earned a free-kick, the reward for a weaving run forward, a yard outside of the penalty area and slightly right.
PSV’s wall edged forward, desperate to close the gap, but Messi arced the ball over all of them, spinning it away from Jeroen Zoet’s left hand and into the top corner.
“He has an incredible left foot,” Ivan Rakitic said. “A lot of the time when he takes free-kicks you may as well go directly to the place where you’re going to celebrate them.”
Marca described it as a “Maradonian touch”. Eight free-kicks converted this year, another personal record broken.
If the World Cup proved anything, however, it is that Messi cannot do it alone and Barcelona will need others to shine if they are to end their Champions League hiatus.
After three straight quarterfinal exits, the last a humbling collapse against Roma, this was a clean slate, a chance, at least to start to put things right.
– Turbulent debut season –
Andres Iniesta has gone but he was not too much missed on this occasion at the Camp Nou, where Philippe Coutinho sparkled and could have had his own hat-trick had his shooting been more precise, while Dembele might have been man of the match before Messi stole the show.
With a turbulent debut season, blighted by injury, behind him, Dembele looks like a player back on track.
He won the free-kick for Messi but his goal was a peach too. Turning between two PSV midfielders, he drove into the space and curved the ball into the bottom corner from 25 yards.
“In a team there is room for everyone, good passers and also for those that can break through,” said Valverde. “That’s where we need Dembele.”
The 21-year-old has five goals, already one more than his total last term. “He was dazzling,” wrote AS. “Those five goals in six games have buried the worst year of Dembele’s life.”
Messi, Dembele, Coutinho, and Luis Suarez too, caused havoc but four goals still flattered Barcelona. “4-0 is too heavy,” PSV’s coach Mark van Bommel said afterwards, and he was right.
They had three good chances to take the lead and Hirving Lozano might have equalised in the second half too, had Gerard Pique not made a scrambling last-ditch block.
Too easily opened up on the counter-attack, Barca will be punished by better teams later in the tournament. For now, this was an important win, to expunge the memories of Rome, and for morale.
“We’re still not 100 percent,” Rakitic said. “We keep working.”