Messi to the rescue as Barcelona scramble through
Barcelona 1 Paris Saint-Germain 1 (Aggregate 3-3; Barcelona win on away goals): It was a tale of two benches in Barcelona as David Beckham's dream of reaching the Champions League final at Wembley next month came to an end.
Paris Saint-Germain brought the former England captain on late in the second half but it was too late – from the home team's dugout Lionel Messi had already emerged and his introduction had inspired Barcelona to become the first team to reach the Champions League semi-finals in six straight seasons.
"Messi is the best player in the world, simple as that," said Beckham. "He came on when we were 1-0 up and they scored. A player like him, 100 per cent fit or not, will always make the difference."
Beckham was given just seven minutes by the PSG coach, Carlo Ancelotti. "The team played really well ," the midfielder said. "We could not have done more. Unfortunately we just couldn't keep hold of the lead. I always enjoy these nights; it's the reason I'm still playing. We did ourselves proud."
It was back in 2007 when Beckham had already signed for LA Galaxy that Barcelona last failed to reach the final four. Messi was having trouble scoring against English teams back then, failing twice in group-stage games with Chelsea and in the last-16 against Liverpool, who knocked them out.
His first-half absence reminded everyone why the Spanish have a word for his importance to the team: Messidependencia – simply Messi-dependence.
Ancelotti looked to have got his team selection right in an aggressive opening 45 minutes for the visitors. They almost got the early goal when Sergi Busquets stumbled on the ball and Ezequiel Lavezzi raced clear only to be crowded out by Gerard Pique. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was then gifted possession by Pique but failed to control the ball as Barcelona continued to defend nervously.
There were plenty of holes at the other end too but no Messi to fill them with magic. David Villa and Cesc Fabregas had been charged with filling Messi's "false nine" boots but when Villa slipped as he shot well wide and Fagregas then fired over with Dani Alves to his right screaming for a pass it was typical of their first-half performances.
PSG may remain a work in progress – a Frenchman, a Swede, three Italians, two Argentines and four Brazilians expensively assembled in short time and united so far only by what they hope will be a Ligue 1 title this season but they were making Barcelona look vulnerable.
There was still no sign of Messi at the restart but he was stripping off to come on after just five minutes – a Javier Pastore goal the cue. Ibrahimovic picked out the Argentine who held his run well and finished past Victor Valdes.
Erring on the side of caution no longer made sense and Messi soon replaced Fabregas as part of a double change that also saw Marc Bartra's arrival. Before he could come on Pastore almost doubled PSG's lead and Lucas Moura had a free-kick saved by Valdes, with Alves going close for Barcelona. Pedro then drew a save from Salvatore Sirigu with Messi unable to convert the rebound with practically his first touch.
On 71 minutes though Messi ran at the heart of the PSG defence and played in Villa with a superb pass. He then laid the ball back and Pedro swept it past Sirigu. Ancelotti's side would have to go again and his substitute options were not quite a match for Tito Vilanova's.
Would there be a 1999 finish for Beckham? He came on to deafening jeers on 83 minutes. His Real Madrid past not forgotten by Barça supporters who will have hoped for no free-kicks on the edge of their area in the last seven minutes.
An Andres Iniesta pirouette inside the six-yard box ended with the Spain international shooting into the side-netting but it was PSG who carried the threat. Barcelona delayed free-kicks and ran the ball into corners. Pedro stayed down as Alba took on water on the touchline and the Nou Camp whistled for full-time.
It was as unusual to see them counting down the clock in the second half as it had been seeing them Messi-less in the first. They have painted European football ever deeper shades of red and blue with their run of semi-final appearances and will be there again in tomorrow's draw but this was a long way from their technicolour best.
"Even when he is not at 100 percent he has that desire to win and he showed it again tonight," said the Barcelona assistant first-team coach, Jordi Roura, of Messi. Asked if the Argentine would be a world-beater with just the one good leg, he added: "I would rather have him fit but he showed tonight that he still makes an impact."
PSG's Lucas said: "He is a genius; it's as simple as that." And goalscorer Pedro added: "We have to thank him for what he did tonight. He is the No 1. When he came on the game changed."
Man of the match Lucas.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee B Kuipers (Neth).
Champions League semi-finalists
Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid
Draw is on Friday in Nyon. Matches to be played 23/24 Apr & 30 Apr/1 May
Belfast Telegraph Digital