Barcelona: As one, the stadium bowed down. Slowly, yet with real fervour, they chanted his name. ‘Mes-si, Mes-si, Mes-si.’ Yes, him again. The little genius.

Pep Guardiola said that, at his best, there was no way of stopping him. He was right. Two goals in five minutes that may put Bayern Munich out at the semi-final stage for the second year in succession. It was going to need something special to beat the magnificent Manuel Neuer. Barcelona had that. They had Lionel Messi.

The game looked to be heading for a draw when he took charge. The first was a fine goal, a shot from mid-range. The second? Well, it was an oil-painting. A thing of such craft and finesse it should be on display somewhere, so future generations can view it.

One at a time, then. In the 77th minute, Bayern lost the ball sloppily on the left and were immediately punished. Dani Alves seized possession and quickly switched it to the man who could make the difference. Messi took two steps, honed in on the target and struck a dipping shot to defeat Neuer at his near post. Remember his goal in the 2011 final at Wembley? It was like that.

The masterpiece came after Ivan Rakitic fed the ball to Messi 30 yards out. From there, he did the rest. The way he went past Jerome Boateng was almost comical. So magnificent was his movement that Germany’s centre half simply turned and fell over. Out came the mighty Neuer and Messi finished with his trademark dink. It landed in the goal like a Rory McIlroy bunker shot, even achieving momentary back spin. The stadium was in uproar. So it should be. What a finish, what a game, what a player.

It is a pity, perhaps, that Neymar’s breakaway in injury time has deprived us of a thrilling return leg. It is close to impossible to see Munich coming back from here, but is no more than Barcelona deserved. Munich and Guardiola decided to slug it out, and lost. Barcelona were better. They deserved this.

It was as if Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao had met at their absolute peak and, instead of boxing clever, had decided to head for the centre of the ring and trade blows. Possession ran at 50 per cent, the teams were a handful of passes apart at half-time. There were good chances at either end, an outstanding display from Neuer in Bayern’s goal — and surely one of the strangest and most courageous managerial decisions in the history of this tournament in all its formats.

Faced with Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar — a trio of players with 108 goals between them this season — Pep Guardiola decided to go with three at the back. Rafinha, Medhi Benatia and Jerome Boateng were strung out across a very overstretched line, the logic of which seemed lost on all but Bayern Munich’s master coach. It allowed the visitors to man-mark seemingly all over the field, to press high and deny Barcelona possession, but there was one problem with the plan.

It was nuts.

After 20 minutes of mayhem during which Suarez had gone through one on one, Neymar had a chance deflected wide off the line and Messi had curled a shot just wide, Guardiola appeared to have a moment of clarity.

‘Oh yes,’ he may have murmured to himself as he stood on the edge of his technical area, watching a game so open it was as if Munich were trying to chase a four-goal deficit, ‘I remember why you don’t go three at the back against Barcelona’s front three. It’s nuts.’

And he changed it to a more conventional four. This prevented further carnage, but it did not entirely shut the game down. Guardiola had clearly decided to play his old club at their own game, and Munich continued pressing, forcing the odd chance, reminding Barcelona that the best ideas are capable of travel. 

That was what made this game so wonderful. Both Barcelona and Bayern are Guardiola teams and the plan is to keep possession. No side gave an inch on that front. Munich played more on the counter-attack but few teams come to the Nou Camp and attempt to take over. It is to Munich and Guardiola’s credit that they were so ambitious given what they would already have seen. Without doubt, Barcelona are the form team in the Champions League this season.

Indeed, it took a quite exceptional display from Neuer in the opening half to repel them. He rose to the occasion as he did at the World Cup, further emphasising his status as the world’s No 1. The game was 12 minutes old when Suarez took advantage of the outrageously sparse numbers at the back for Munich, sprinting clear of Munich’s defensive line. He had only Neuer to beat.

The German advanced and spread himself, starfish style, as Peter Schmeichel once did for Manchester United. It is an old handball manoeuvre. When the forward can place the ball so accurately with his hands, there really is nothing else for a goalkeeper to do other than make himself big and hope. Suarez has feet with the accuracy of hands, so Neuer gambled, jumped, stuck his limbs out and the ball struck his right leg. 

He was in peak form again, five minutes before half-time when a lovely pass from Andres Iniesta picked out Dani Alves, only for Neuer to be equal to it.

An hour gone, Neymar sprang the offside trap only for Neuer to come racing off line to clear, sweeper style. He has changed the way we think of the goalkeeper’s role.

Barcelona just shaded it on chances. In the 15th minute, Ivan Rakitic picked out Suarez who embarked on a brilliant run, crossing for Neymar whose finish was blocked on its way to goal.

Messi’s skill took him past three players on his way to goal after 21 minutes but his shot curled just wide, and Suarez headed over from a corner. Yet Munich’s back four began working for them, and their chances were plentiful enough.

Notice was served after 13 minutes when a Bastian Schweinsteiger cross was headed wide by Robert Lewandowski. Five minutes later, however, Munich should have gone ahead. Thomas Muller got the cross in from the right and Lewandowski, in a shameful amount of space just outside the six-yard box, missed his kick. It was impossible to see whether he was blushing beneath his protective black mask, but he should have been.

Next up, Thiago Alcantara — the one player Guardiola insisted on taking from his old club when he moved to the Bundesliga — hit a cross-shot in the 30th minute that proved a real challenge for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal. 

 Courtesy: The Daily Mail