Before the start of F.C. Barcelona’s return match against Chelsea, the Catalan fans unfurled a giant banner of Lionel Messi, which read “God save the King.”
Less than three minutes later, Messi showed why he is venerated in his Camp Nou stadium and far beyond as he scored his fastest-ever goal. From a tight angle, he shot with his weaker right foot through the legs of Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea’s Belgian goalkeeper, to help send Barcelona to the quarterfinals of the Champions League in what turned out to be a comfortable 3-0 victory.
Wednesday’s victory leaves Barcelona on track to win a continental treble — the Spanish league title, the Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League — for the third time since 2009, a period of excellence that not surprisingly coincides with the prime years of Messi’s career. The club has a comfortable lead in Spain’s domestic championship, La Liga, and will play the final of the King’s Cup against Seville next month.
The dominance is even more remarkable considering the record transfer of Neymar, the worldwide star, to Paris Saint-Germain last summer. Since then, Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona’s coach, has rebuilt a disciplined team. Its defense has conceded just 17 goals so far this season, and its attack is more than ever inspired and spearheaded by Messi.
Things don’t always go as perfectly as they did here Wednesday night. In the first leg against Chelsea in London last month, Messi was not at his most scintillating, but he scored late to level at 1-1 a game in which Chelsea had the clearest chances. On Wednesday, Messi scored twice to off Chelsea’s hopes of an upset, giving him 100 goals in the Champions League. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, his Real Madrid rival, had previously reached that mark.
Messi was also instrumental when Barcelona doubled its lead after 20 minutes. He robbed the ball from Cesc Fabregas close to the midfield line, powered his way down the left side of the field, sailing past both Andreas Christensen and César Azpilicueta, and then crossed to Ousmane Dembélé, who was unmarked on the other side of the field after a 60-yard sprint. The young French forward fired a thumping shot past Courtois. It was Dembélé’s first goal for Barcelona, confirming his return to form after a mostly frustrating debut season for the Catalan club in which he was long sidelined.
To its credit, Chelsea didn’t surrender to Messi and controlled the game for a long spell after Barcelona’s second goal, with Willian, the Brazilian midfielder, displaying the acceleration and power that made him Chelsea’s biggest threat in the first leg. England’s reigning champions then came close to scoring from a set piece in the final seconds of the first half, when Marcos Alonso curled a free kick above Barcelona’s defensive wall and past the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stengen. The ball clanked into the outside of the post.
At the start of the second half, Chelsea upped the pace and Alonso came close on two more occasions. In the 48th minute, he was stopped by a last-ditch, sliding tackle from Dembélé and a minute later, he had a penalty appeal rejected by the referee, after he pierced Barcelona’s defense and tumbled to the ground when challenged from behind by Gerard Piqué, Barcelona’s towering defender.
In recent years, the duels between Chelsea and Barcelona have produced some of the most thrilling encounters in the Champions League, notably in 2009 and 2012, when the outcome was settled by spectacular late goals. Antonio Rüdiger, the Chelsea defender, smashed a powerful header onto the crossbar in the 89th minute on Wednesday, but by then Messi had ended any chance of a Chelsea turnaround.
After the final whistle, Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s coach, walked onto the field and congratulated some of Barcelona’s players. His longest embrace, of course, was for Messi. He then escorted Messi to the stadium tunnel, whispering into his ear. Afterward, Conte argued that Chelsea’s exit from the Champions League was perhaps unfair, but settled by Messi.
“It’s right to acknowledge when somebody is a super, super player,” Conte told a news conference. “I was happy to be able to tell Messi how well he played. I repeat: he’s an extraordinary player, the best in the world.”