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Barcelona are Champions League outsiders but with Messi they always have a chance



No player wants the Champions League back in the Barcelona trophy cabinet more than Lionel Messi, and he pulled the weight of his whole team as the Catalans reached the quarter-finals.

Barcelona’s captain shone brightly at an empty Camp Nou on Saturday, driving his team into the next round; head and shoulders above the rest as he usually is and has been for far too long.

Messi scored a brilliant solo goal and won the penalty for the third goal on the night as Barca went further than rivals Real Madrid and booked their ticket to Lisbon with a 3-1 win over Napoli (4-2 on aggregate).

Midfielder Frenkie de Jong can be pleased with his night’s work, deadlock-breaker Clement Lenglet too, but the rest of Barcelona’s team owe Messi a cerveza when the season is over, especially his strike-partners Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann.

The Uruguayan, as he looked for much of La Liga’s run-in, was far below his best and visibly unfit, while Griezmann was barely visible at all. The French forward has not clicked at Barcelona and still doesn’t seem to fit into the system Quique Setien wants to operate.

Messi took a deep breath as he walked out onto the pitch, sporting the look of a man who knew he had a lot of work to do.

However, Lenglet was the unlikely opening goalscorer, heading in from Ivan Rakitic’s corner after Kalidou Koulibaly bizarrely passed it out of play.

Then Messi took over, notching the second with a flurry of genius, beating two men, losing his footing but picking himself up off the floor to arc an unstoppable curling effort into the far corner.

Messi thought he had added a sublime second to his tally but VAR ruled against him for a slight handball as the ball brushed his arm. De Jong sprayed a sensational pass with the outside of his boot to Messi, who controlled the ball on his chest and lifted it over Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina.

No matter, the Argentine proved decisive again before the first half was out as he cleverly engineered his way between Koulibaly and the ball, with the defender hacking Messi down as he tried to clear his lines.

After a long VAR delay the penalty was awarded and Suarez, Messi’s friend and neighbour, smashed it into the top corner to extend Barcelona’s lead.

This was also Barcelona’s most worrying moment, as their captain hobbled and winced, looking potentially stricken by the challenge, but he managed to recover.

Lorenzo Insigne pulled one back from the penalty spot before half time to remind the Catalans — if it wasn’t for Messi, this would be a much, much tighter affair. Dries Mertens had hit the post within 90 seconds as Napoli flashed Barcelona a warning signal, as if Real Madrid’s capitulation on Friday night wasn’t enough.

But beyond Messi, there’s not a lot of substance to this Barcelona side, which needs a deep clean both in terms of the squad and those pulling the strings in the club offices.

That was evident in the second half as Napoli dominated the ball and almost forced a nerve-racking final 10 minutes when Arkadiusz Milik headed home but his goal was disallowed for offside.

Barcelona held on to their lead to win and also ensured Messi steered clear of a yellow card which would have ruled him out of the quarter-finals.

Bayern Munich will provide far sterner opposition than Napoli, as their destruction of Chelsea proved, and if Messi had been booked, Barcelona might as well not bother to travel to Lisbon.

As it stands, they will be up against it, but with Messi on the pitch they will always have a chance.

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