“Truth is, I don’t remember anything like this,” Lionel Messisaid but nor do they and their reaction said more than words, long abandoned as inadequate. There were five minutes left of a perfect performance when he took the shot that transfixed them and then turned them. Not so much hit first time as coaxed, the ball rose softly and curved gently, granting them time to take it in, inviting them to halt everything and watch it orbiting alone, so they did. Only Betis goalkeeper Pau López moved, seeing it float by, just there but just out of reach, everything unfolding like a slow-motion replay from an arty TV director. Only this was live. The ball caressed the bar, landed in the net, and there was a collective intake of breath. And then, instead of a roar, an “oh”.
Aissa Mandi and Marc Bartra held their head in theirs hands, which is normal for defenders who’ve just conceded but Barcelona centre-back Clément Lenglet did the same, a few metres away. So did Sergi Roberto, watching from further back, both barely able to believe it. López, 6ft 2in, hadn’t even been far off his line, but he had been beaten for a fourth time, three of them by Messi. There was no culpability, just compassion. Maybe even a hint of pride; at least you were beaten like that and by him. López got up and blew his cheeks out, eyes wide: did you see that?!
Oh, they saw. Messi’s team-mates ran towards him. Luis Suárez was laughing: that was just silly. Jordi Alba arrived, hands on head: what did you do?! On the touchline, Betis’s assistant manager Eder Sarabia whispered in the ear of coach Quique Setién, the pair powerless like López, convinced they had just been defeated by the best player in history. “There’s not much you can do against Messi,” Betis striker Loren Morón said. Not much except the only thing that felt right: applaud. As the ball went in, all around the ground, the fans – Betis’s fans – began to clap, 54,172 people on their feet. And as Barcelona’s players celebrated, that gave way to something else: soon, thousands of them were chanting Messi’s name, bowing before him.
Messi raised a hand, then pointed to the sky as he does. “I’m grateful,” he said later.
They were too. Not to have been beaten, but to have been there. At his home, Setién has a signed Messi shirt framed on his wall. “I’ve seen great players do wonderful things but not with the consistency and the ability to decide everything that Messi has. I don’t know if even Pelé had this consistency,” Setien said. “It’s every game, every single one. You feel lucky to have been around at the same time as him; to be able to watch him every Sunday.” Betis’s Mexican midfielder Andrés Guardado has a picture of his son Maximo with Messi at home. He’s also got 20 pictures of himself with Messi on the pitch; the problem, he says, is he hasn’t got the ball in any of them.
This Monday, he probably still hasn’t. Because if this could have been any given Sunday, that consistency eclipsing rather than exaggerating Messi’s ability, this Sunday was particularly absurd even for him. Above the match reports in AS, where Messi was given four stars out of three, there are four squares, four “awards” from each match: the crack, the terrible day, the dandy, and the hard man, each with a 20-word resumé. “I don’t know what to write in this box any more,” Santi Giménez wrote, “what he did had the Villamarín applauding. Go watch the video.”
There were echoes there of Pep Guardiola’s advice from the press room, years ago now: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.”
If you’re in Britain, you could. You could watch the whole thing. ITV4 showed Barcelona v Betis live, free to air. If you didn’t watch it, it had better have been a bloody brilliant episode of Midsomer Murders.
This was a great match. Or, as one viewer neatly put it: “This was a match? I thought it was a goal of the month competition”. There were five of them – four for Barcelona, one for Betis – and they were all superb. And if that makes it sound one-sided, it wasn’t: 43% of possession was Barcelona’s lowest in a decade and from the Betis dressing room, one voice claimed he had “never seen” them dominated like they had been by his team in the first half.
Nor was it only about Messi. The player running through from the halfway line while the rest stood back and let him get on with it, the player turning one way then the other, snapping Marc Bartra in two, sending two players crashing into each other, hurdling a third and then slotting it past the goalkeeper while three opponents lay on the floor, was Suárez, not Messi. The player who produced a ludicrous backheel assist reversed through a gap that wasn’t there was Suárez too. Yet it was Messi who scored that and two more, and by the end it was his name the Villamarín chanted, left with the feeling that if they had taken the game to Barcelona, they could not take it from Messi. It’s a feeling many have, one opposition coach privately insisting: “Messi’s the best player in history every day. Messi is everything for Barcelona. EVERYTHING.”
Messi scored a hat-trick, his 51st. He has now won 333 times in primera, a solitary victory behind Iker Casillas’s all-time record. Jorge Valdano once famously insisted: “Messi is Maradona every day.” And while the national team would suggest that’s not entirely true, while Europe has evaded them for the last four years, domestically it is hard to disagree. Atlético Madrid’s 2-0 defeat at Athletic on Saturday, their season effectively over in four days, left Barcelona 10 points clear with 10 games to go, Ernesto Valverde admitting: “it’s a big step.” If they do win it, it would be Messi’s 10th league title – and increasingly they are his. “This league has just one name on it,” said Sport.
In all three of his goals, not only did Messi score, he also built the move, providing the pass to the player who provided the assist – or in the case of the free-kick, the pass to Arthur who was fouled. He gave the second to Suárez and the third to Rakitic, running to get it back, as if the plan was simple, which sometimes it is: give it to the little bloke wearing 10. There was a fourth move like that too, which ended with him putting the shot against the post in the final minute. If that can be problematic at times – and it is – it’s hard not to be drawn into it.
Mostly, it works. Going back a decade, Messi’s goalscoring totals in the league alone read: 29 (and counting), 34, 37, 26, 43, 28, 46, 50, 31, 34. In all competitions this season he has a total of 39, plus 18 assists, in 37 games. As if what he does can be quantified.
On Sunday night, it could be. And at the same time, it couldn’t, instead brought back to something more primitive, almost childish. Messi wasn’t applauded because he scored three times, but because of how he did it, how often he has done it: he is the first player to score hat-tricks at Betis and Sevilla in the same season.
Messi opened the scoring with a free-kick so good that the commentary on French TV was soon doing the rounds on the net: there was nothing left to say, so they just laughed. Asked afterwards which was hardest goal, Messi just smiled a little shyly and said: “I don’t know.” The first was brilliant, cracking them up; it might also have been the worstBarcelona scored. Setién said the second was like something off the PlayStation and by the time Messi lifted in his third, slowing everything down, an entire stadium held in suspended animation, watching the ball spinning gently through its orbit and into the net, there was nothing left to say and nothing they could do except stand and applaud.
• It’s not just Messi on the front cover of El Mundo Deportivo on Monday; there, arms out, celebrating. Right across the masthead, is England forward Toni Duggan, scorer of the decisive goal as Barcelona beat Atlético 2-0 on Sunday in front of 60,739 fans at the Wanda Metropolitano – the biggest crowd ever in women’s club football.
• There is not league. In four days, Atlético’s season came to an end, almost three months before the Champions League final in their own stadium. Beaten in Turin, out of Europe, they were defeated 2-0 at Athletic leaving them virtually out of the title race. When Thomas Partey took aim in the dying moments it was their first shot on target over 180 minutes and that wasn’t the only thing issing; something more profound prompting soul searching, maybe even the need to rebuild an identity. “The hardest thing to take is that we weren’t Atlético,” Diego Godín said.
• Happy birthday Valencia. One hundred on Monday, although unable to mark the occasion with a victory over Getafe that would have really opened up the fight for fourth.
• Zidane’s back and it’s as if he never went away. Which, at least in the short term, is part of the point.
• Valladolid, 1-0 down on 89 minutes, somehow defeated Eibar 2-1 at Ipurua to clinch an absolutely massive victory near the bottom and now look safe. Rayo, beatenat Villarreal, do no. Nor do Celta and Huesca’s recent revival ended with defeat to Alavés.