It was only fitting that in what may be his final season with Barcelona, Lionel Messi lifted the Copa del Rey – the King’s Cup.
The football world was only recently recovering from the sinking realisation that we might never see the great magician take on Real Madrid in El Clasico ever again, and that sadness multiplied when he fired a blank in the 2-1 defeat.
So, the thought of Messi losing a cup final in what could possibly be his final chance for silverware at Camp Nou was simply unthinkable. Luckily, Saturday night would be the Argentine’s night, where he danced and frolicked from start to finish, reminding us all why we watch the beautiful game.
In fact, the whole Blaugrana team put in a display worthy of their talisman, and they stepped up to the incredibly high standards he sets every week, crushing Athletic Bilbao in an awe-inspiring 4-0 victory.
There was only one team playing in the first half.
Barcelona flew out of the blocks, stating their intent by carving out three or four fantastic early chances. Messi was in his element and playing with a smile on his face, rolling back the years to when he was alien and unplayable, not just extraterrestrial.
Frenkie de Jong should have hit the net when laid up inside the box, but his placed finish kissed the post on the full and bounced away. Messi fired wide from the right-hand side of the box and the forward wasted a good chance from a free-kick soon after.
Ronald Koeman’s side squeezed and suffocated Bilbao high up the pitch, Clement Lenglet was stepping into midfield and pinching any loose balls, and Gerard Pique was keeping a close eye on Inaki Williams’ movements.
Sergio Busquets played the role of washing machine in midfield, picking up any dirty loose balls in the middle, taking them under his control and turning them out clean for his teammates. It was as dominant a half as you could imagine, and the goal was coming.
And then, it wasn’t.
Bilbao plugged the gap, reorganised and got settled in for a long half of defending. Barça were a little disheartened not to have capitalised on their early chances, and although they ended the first half with 79% of possession, they struggled to test Unai Simon any further.
Koeman would have been keen to stress to his players the need for calm, but to maintain the intensity with which they attacked their opponents, and they didn’t disappoint. Antoine Griezmann should have broken the deadlock only three minutes into the second half, but he tapped the ball wide when sliding into the six-yard box.
But they did break Bilbao down on the hour-mark, and from that moment, they never looked back. Messi got the move going, feeding De Jong down the right flank, and his pinpoint cross found the feet of Griezmann, and this time, he made no mistake.
De Jong landed a second blow in three minutes on the rocking Bilbao, and then it was time for the main man to take centre stage. Messi picked up the ball deep inside his own half on the right flank, and set about weaving some classic magic.
He bounced the ball off De Jong and got it back, darted into the box, cut inside effortlessly onto his left foot, sent his marker into another postcode, and then rolled a perfect shot into the far corner.
It was devastatingly easy for Messi as he rounded off their third goal in eight minutes, but he wasn’t finished there. He then gave us a glimpse of a scene we’ve witnessed a thousand times, arriving onto a cutback pass on the edge of the box and slotting a precise finish into the bottom corner.
It was simply impossible to watch that game without a smile on your face. Messi was having fun on the pitch, and we were having fun with him. He deserved to soak up the applause of a full house as a last-minute substitute, leaving the field a hero, but that would mean missing out on extra seconds of inspiration.
Whether this victory will be tinged with sadness for the Argentine, who’ll ponder why his teammates can’t play like that consistently, we may never know.
But if it is to be Messi’s final dance at the ball and the final prize he lifts in a Barcelona jersey, then it was a pretty special way to do it.