Lionel Messi scored twice and had one assist in Barcelona’s 3-0 Champions League victory over Chelsea in the round of 16. (Getty)
Chelsea’s annus horribilis somehow got worse on Wednesday, when it was bounced ignominiously from the UEFA Champions League round of 16 by a virtuoso Lionel Messi performance as he led FC Barcelona to a 3-0 victory and a 4-1 aggregate score.
There’s no great shame in that, of course, except that Barca’s win was so simple, so comprehensive, so quick, that it will only add fuel to the fire raging in West London, where manager Antonio Conte’s tenure might not even be tenable through the end of the season.
And it won’t be lost on the Blues fans that this is the second disastrous campaign in three seasons, both coming, curiously, on the heels of a Premier League title win.
Last year, Conte strode into Stamford Bridge like a savior, leading Chelsea to a straightforward title after a calamitous final season – or a partial one, anyway – under Jose Mourinho, in the follow-up to his own championship. But so far this year, Chelsea lost the Community Shield to Arsenal on penalties; lost in the League Cup semis to the Gunners in January; and went on such a bad recent run in the league, with four losses in five games, that Conte’s men slumped to fifth place – outside the coveted Champions League places.
Now all that’s left to play for with two months left in the season is the FA Cup. Because it took just 20 minutes for Barca to get all the goals it needed Wednesday, just three weeks after the Blues were unfortunate not to take more than a 1-1 draw from their home leg. After all, Willian had struck the woodwork twice then, before bagging a go-ahead goal that was canceled out by Messi’s tally.
In Catalonia, Messi scored the fastest goal of his career – his 601st in his Barca career – within two minutes and eight seconds; masterminded Ousmane Dembele’s first goal for the club; and then got the third himself in a 3-0 win, his 100th in the Champions League. He’s the second man to reach the milestone, and needed fewer games and shots than Cristiano Ronaldo to get there.
Shortly after kickoff, Messi started a move up the right side of the field, which fortuitously stayed in his side’s possession before Luis Suarez backheeled the ball behind the defensive line for Messi. He stuck his finish through the legs of Thibaut Courtois from a miniscule angle. It wasn’t the Belgian goalkeeper’s most glorious moment, coming from Messi’s right off-leg, no less.
Then, in the 20th, Messi picked off a lax Cesc Fabregas pass in midfield, started the counter-attack on his own and laid off for the trailing Dembele, who hammered in his finish.
On the brink of halftime, Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso curled a free kick off the outside of the post that very nearly made a game of it again.
And Chelsea deserved to get back into it. Because after conceding the second goal, it largely controlled the game. That made the comfort of Barca’s win all the more curious.
After the intermission, Dembele had to make a lung-busting recovery run to deny Marcos Alonso a clear shot in the box. And the Spaniard and his brethren then shrieked for a penalty when he tumbled down in front of Gerard Pique in the box, in spite of his seemingly clear run at goal.
Courtois had an unusually shaky night, giving Suarez a free chance with a dreadful giveaway. But, for the most part, Chelsea commanded the run of play. So Barca manager Ernesto Valverde made a system change before the hour — going from two strikers to a 4-3-3. And while that didn’t stop Chelsea’s assault, Barca soon got its third.
In the 63rd minute, Messi started another attack, got the ball back up the left and nutmegged Courtois a second time.
And, insofar as it wasn’t already, that was that. Never mind that Antonio Rudiger headed a ball off Barca’s crossbar in the 90th minute.
More embarrassment for Chelsea. More glory for another special incarnation of this Barca team.
For all the pain this season has brought Chelsea, Barca is once again on pace for an all-time campaign. In spite of an inexplicable 5-1 Supercopa de Espana loss to Real Madrid to open the year, it has reached the Copa del Rey final – where it will face Sevilla on April 21 – and has built out an eight-point lead in La Liga with 10 games to play. It has yet to lose in the league. Or in Europe.
Barca has now made it to the quarterfinals of the glamorous continental competition for an 11th season in a row. The trouble is, after winning it in 2015, Barca has not made it past the last eight since. In fact, this inarguably dynastic team has won the Champions League just once in six seasons, while arch-rivals Real Madrid have lifted it three times in the last four years.
To state the very obvious, winning the Champions League is hard. It’s a matter of a handful of touches and bounces. Yet Barca won it twice in three years and three times in six before this quasi-drought. And the historic nature of an undefeated league season would only be amplified by a European title or indeed another treble – Barca’s third after 2008-09 and 2014-15.
All of those teams had Lionel Messi in them. And so long as that’s the case, more trebles seem eminently realistic. Because the kind of Messi that we saw on Wednesday, the kind that we’ve seen so many times, cannot be stopped. Especially not by a Chelsea team that has lost its way.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.