It was only fitting that in what could be his last season with Barcelona, Lionel Messi lifted the Copa del Rey – the Copa del Rey.
The football world was only recently recovering from the realization that we might never see the great magician again facing Real Madrid in El Clasico, and that sadness increased when he shot blank in the loss. 2-1.
So, the idea of Messi losing a cup final in what could be his last chance for silverware at Camp Nou was simply unthinkable. Luckily Saturday night would be Argentinian night, where he danced and frolic from start to finish, reminding us all why we are watching the great game.
In fact, the entire Blaugrana squad put on a display worthy of their talisman, and they stepped up to the incredibly high standards he sets each week, crushing Athletic Bilbao in an impressive 4-0 victory.
There was only one team in the first half.
Barcelona flew out of the blocks, declaring their intention by carving out three or four fantastic chances for themselves. Messi was in his element and playing with a smile on his face, going back the years to when he was an alien and unplayable, not just alien.
Frenkie de Jong should have hit the net when lying inside the box, but his placed finish embraced the entire post and bounced back. Messi shot wide from the right side of the box and the forward lost a good chance with a free kick soon after.
Ronald Koeman’s side squeezed and smothered Bilbao at the top of the pitch, Clement Lenglet entered midfield and pinched stray balls, and Gerard Pique was keeping a close eye on Inaki Williams’ movements.
Sergio Busquets played the part of the washing machine in the midfield, picking up all the dirty and loose balls in the middle, taking them under his control and making them clean for his teammates. It was as dominant half as you can imagine, and the goal was ahead.
And then, it wasn’t.
Bilbao closed the gap, reorganized and settled in for a long half of defense. Barca were a little disheartened that they hadn’t capitalized on their early chances, and although they finished the first half with 79% possession, they struggled to test Unai Simon 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 did not disappoint. Antoine Griezmann should have broken the deadlock just three minutes after the start of the second half, but he patted the ball wide as he slid into the six-yard box.
But they broke Bilbao on time, and from that point on they never looked back. Messi started the movement, feeding De Jong on the right flank, and his precise cross found Griezmann’s feet, and this time he wasn’t wrong.
De Jong landed a second shot in three minutes on the Bilbao seesaw, then it was time for the main man to take center stage. Messi picked up the ball deep in his half on the right flank and set about weaving classic magic.
He bounced the ball off De Jong and got it back, rushed into the box, cut the inside effortlessly on his left foot, sent his marker to another zip code, then took a shot perfect in the far corner.
It was incredibly easy for Messi as he completed his third goal in eight minutes, but he wasn’t done there. He then gave us a glimpse of a scene we’ve witnessed a thousand times, arriving on a reduction pass on the edge of the box and scoring a precise finish in the bottom corner.
It was simply impossible to watch this game without a smile on your face. Messi was having fun on the pitch and we had fun with him. He deserved to enjoy the applause of a full hall as a last-minute substitute, leaving the field a hero, but that would mean missing out on extra seconds of inspiration.
If this victory will be tinged with sadness for the Argentine, who will wonder why his teammates cannot play like this consistently, we may never know.
But if this is to be Messi’s last dance at the ball and the final prize he lifts in a Barcelona jersey, then that was a pretty special way of doing it.