That such brilliance at a key moment of a pivotal game felt somehow inevitable underlined how much Lionel Messi has spoiled us for so long.
Needing to dart in-field towards a packed defence on a sodden playing surface, before receiving a bouncing return pass 20 yards from goal, with one of the world’s best goalkeepers between the posts.
Those would not represent favourable circumstances for any other player. But when Messi drew back his left boot to caress a side-footed finish, Atletico Madrid number one Jan Oblak knew what was coming. So did the 64,226 fans inside the Wanda Metropolitano and they had about as much chance of averting a 1-0 defeat.
The arc of the ball, low into the left corner, mimicked his last-gasp Clasico winner at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2017. Another showreel moment in a career bursting with them.
As usual, with Barcelona nudging back ahead of Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga on the eve of the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Paris, Messi’s timing was impeccable.
“I don’t follow these awards galas because they are too long,” said Barca boss Ernesto Valverde afterwards, luxuriating in his embattled door-to-door salesman demeanour. “But if you have to give it to the best, let’s just give it to Messi and the problem is solved.”
Messi = problem solved. It’s been the story of Valverde’s Barcelona tenure to an even larger extent than it was for his predecessors
The 32-year-old is tipped to collect the sixth Ballon d’Or of his career in the French capital on Monday and once again move ahead of eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the overall standings.
If he does, it will be natural to sympathise with Virgil van Dijk, insofar as the Liverpool and Netherlands centre-back’s bravura campaign came the year after Luka Modric was a celebrated recipient of the game’s grandest individual honour.
Champions League glory with Real Madrid and inspiring Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final, embellishing a career of sustained excellence and artistry, made Modric a worthy candidate. But his cause was helped by a thirst for it simply to be someone else. Those 50-goal seasons had become so run of the mill.
Messi or Ronaldo had taken home the prize every year since Kaka triumphed in 2007. Now Modric has served as a kind of sorbet for that decade of footballing decadence, Van Dijk might suffer for the fact nobody needs their palate cleansed anymore.
It will be Messi’s first Ballon d’Or since 2015, which is the only time he has been officially declared as the best player in the word in the past five years. Last year, he failed to make the top three. That same inevitability that served him so well in a damp Madrid on Sunday night has hindered him in this regard.
4 – @FCBarcelona have collected 17 points in #LaLiga thanks to 52 Lionel Messi's goals the last five minutes. Four of these points have been earned vs Atlético de Madrid, more than any other opponent in the competition. Decisive pic.twitter.com/ObOhFGLGC6
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 2, 2019
Messi’s stellar career can be roughly broken down into three acts.
The prodigious youngster blessed with the easiest touch you’ve ever seen, phenomenal awareness and blistering acceleration – he didn’t walk as much back then – was instantly noteworthy at Barcelona before becoming the shimmering jewel in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side around the turn of the last decade.
Under Luis Enrique, the emphasis shifted from super-team to superstar forward line and Messi dazzled alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar. MSN swept all before them on the way to a treble in 2014-15, an attack of potent brilliance unlike anything else.
In between those two periods, during the reign of the late Tito Vilanova, talk of Barca’s “Messidependencia” really began to grow. He scored an absurd 70 goals in the 2012-13 season.
Guardiola joked that pouring over the tactical intricacies of his Barca side was futile, given the plan was simply to give Messi the ball. Valverde would not laugh that one off so easily because the Blaugrana have never depended on their captain as much as they do right now.
The huge drop-off in standards when Barcelona are without Messi is startling and last season’s Copa del Rey offered a clear demonstration. He was rested for the first leg of ties against Levante and Sevilla, they lost both and he was recalled each time to score in comfortable return wins.
Van Dijk has a decent claim to being the next most important player in world football when tying the presence of an individual to the fortunes of a team. The Dutchman’s £75million arrival from Southampton transformed a destructive but inconsistent side into a relentless winning machine.
If Liverpool continue their unblinking Premier League form, Van Dijk can expect to be in contention for the Ballon d’Or next year. And why shouldn’t they?
Jurgen Klopp can call upon 2019’s answer to MSN in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, while their star centre-back is flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson – probably the best pair of full-backs any club can boast.
The team-man in the one-man team
Beyond goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, whose heroics against Atletico laid the foundations for Messi’s own, it is hard to make a strong case for any of his Barca team-mates being serious contenders for a world XI. Frenkie de Jong, perhaps, but that would owe much to his body of work at Ajax.
It seems laughable to think one of the arguments made by Messi detractors during those interminable Leo v CR7 debates was that he only succeeded because of the Barcelona team in which he played. Then as now, it was a case of brilliance being taken for granted.
“I’d like to have an explanation about Leo, the talent he has,” Valverde said after his key man’s latest masterstroke.
“But not just that, because there are a lot of people with talent. Leo’s can be seen always. He has an ambition and a sense of obligation with the club, which you see in every game.”
Just because Messi does these things all the time doesn’t make them any less remarkable. He is a team-man and a one-man team who continues to stand above the rest.