When he turned in Ibrahim Afellay’s cross at the near post to give Barcelona a 1-0 lead it was in keeping with a scrappy eyesore of a match, but when he slalomed through the Real defence to double the advantage, he restored the watching world’s faith.
After the cantankerous press conferences with their spiteful recriminations and expletive-filled retaliations came an ill-tempered game.
Teams so often end up resembling their coaches — this tie was as niggly as the tit-for-tat from Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho that had preceded it.
Rarely has so much talent been brought together in just two teams and never has it been so wasted on stifling tactics, time-wasting, late challenges and off-the-ball incidents with both teams equally guilty.
At the end of the game both were reportedly locked in their dressing rooms in an attempt to defuse the antagonism.
Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper Jose Pinto was sent off at half-time after he and Alvaro Arbeloa hit out at each other en route to the tunnel.
Then Pepe was shown a red card for a wild challenge on Dani Alves, whose theatrical reaction to the foul ensured the card was not yellow as it should have been.
But worse than the cards, and worse than the fact that Mourinho has now finished only four of his 10 matches against Barcelona with 11 men, was the complete lack of sparkling football.
Messi, until his late winner, was swamped, Cristiano Ronaldo smothered — football was the loser.
Despite rumours that Guardiola was bluffing about the absence of Andres Iniesta, the mercurial midfielder was indeed missing with a calf strain that may yet keep him out of next week’s second leg.
Carles Puyol played his first game for almost two weeks as emergency left-back and Javier Mascherano again partnered Gerard Pique in the centre of defence.
Real Madrid’s team followed Mourinho’s recent policy of alternating the forward line. Karim Benzema, Kaka and Gonzalo Higuain had all scored in the 6-3 win at Valencia at the weekend but all were on the bench as Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil started.
Barcelona had the first half-chance when Xavi forced Iker Casillas to make a save with a shot from distance. Ronaldo immediately did likewise at the other end.
Barcelona dominated early possession with Real happy for them to have it providing they stayed in their own half.
Barcelona were creeping forward with Messi finding more possession in the Real half, and on 25 minutes they should have had the lead.
Messi somehow wriggled into space just in front of Real’s back four and sent a teasing pass through to Xavi who had only the advancing Casillas to beat. The goalkeeper got down smartly to his left and the first clear-cut opportunity had gone.
Barcelona had enjoyed 82 per cent of possession in the first 15 minutes but as they advanced so they left more space behind and the home side looked increasingly dangerous when they broke. But still the game was tortuous.
Sergio Ramos had a half-chance from a free-kick but in open play only Marcelo’s energy down the left gave Barcelona a problem.
Tempers flared when Arbeloa flattened Pedro off the ball. The Barcelona bench swarmed to the touchline, the referee was surrounded by red-and-blue shirts and, after consulting both the fourth official and his linesman, the former Liverpool man was booked.
Ronaldo then shot from distance with Victor Valdes blocking straight to Ozil who could not convert the rebound, although the German had initially appeared offside.
As the two sets of players headed for the tunnel at the break, tempers flared again with Seydou Keita seeking out Arbeloa.
There was pushing and shoving between the two players and as Pinto intervened, Arbeloa lashed out at him and was lucky to escape punishment from referee Wolfgang Stark who did spot Pinto’s retaliation and sent him off, meaning Barcelona had no reserve keeper on the bench.
In the 76th minute Messi had spoken, the visitors going 1-0 in front, and when he was to speak again three minutes from the end, it was with a goal so far above everything that had passed before it that it deserved to be part of another game.
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