Two goals at the end of first-half stoppage time took the final away from a plucky Alaves side.
Sometimes it’s better to just sit back and watch, to drink it in. This occasion, the final of the Copa del Rey, was one of those.
On one hand it was the final game at the Vicente Calderón, the last stadium in the Spanish capital that doesn’t feel like a shiny monument to capitalism and something to be savoured before it is reduced to rubble.
On another, there was Lionel Messi. A magician.
You could reduce it down to his brilliant opener, or that, just when Barcelona slipped for a micro-second and let Alaves back into this game, Messi ensured that his side could pull away from them with a comfortable win.
But it was another one of those performances where he flitted between defenders like a moth in the curtains and executed impossible passes that, even viewed from high up in the stands, simply weren’t there.
This was a game with a sense of occasion, and the seal of its importance was Messi’s performance. The Argentine has now played in 25 finals and scored 26 goals. If it’s a big match, it’s a Messi match, and yet much of the sense that this was a big occasion had been – until kick-off at least – provided by the fans visiting from the Basque country rather than Catalunya.
Even half an hour before kick-off, the Alaves end was full, flying flags and singing songs. The Barcelona contingent were somewhat more casual in their punctuality and attendance.
But perhaps this should have been no surprise. A day spent in Madrid prior to kick-off saw the deep blue and white stripes of Alaves outnumber their opponents by around ten to one. In terms of passion, of what it meant to these respective fanbases, it was no fair fight. But the inverse of that was true on the field, where Barcelona’s gaggle of millionaires danced around as Alaves thundered into tackles.
Aided by a referee who was the visually-impaired side of lenient, Alaves stuck well with Barca for the opening 20 minutes, landing blow after blow and flashing occasional threats on the counter.
And then came Lionel Messi, as he does, as he always has done and as he will seemingly continue to do so for as long as he can lace up his boots.
With no space to play in, Messi dropped a quick one-two on the edge of the area and, on the ’t’ of that ‘two’, he curled a first-time shot into the bottom corner with his left foot.
This was to be a game of great goals and Messi’s effort was simply the appetiser.
Theo Hernandez didn’t take long to offer the next course, a whipped free kick that embarrassed Jasper Cillessen by curling over his head to find the one tiny part of the goal he could not cover.
Theo is still owned by Atletico Madrid, but had never played for them at the Calderón. He never will, either, but he has his first goal there in its final game.
Earlier this month he passed a medical at Real Madrid and will this summer sign a long-term deal with Atleti’s crosstown rivals. He had said pre-match that his main preoccupation in this final was with stopping Messi but the assumption had been that he meant defensively, instead here he was, landing his first-ever blow against Barcelona as a Madrid player with an equaliser that demonstrated he is not your average full-back and hinting at just how good he could be.
It was a goal that ignited the blue end of the Calderón, an explosion of happiness as much through surprise as anything else. Minutes earlier, Ibai had gone within millimetres of levelling the game and the west end of the stadium had a communal heart attack. The ball rolled across the goal to a mass of held breath. It meant more to those bouncing, singing Alaves supporters undoubtedly, but sometimes that isn’t enough.
And on this occasion it wasn’t enough because Barcelona had Lionel Messi. And Lionel Messi is the best player in the world when he is on his game. This performance had every Messi; Messi the finisher, who we saw in the opener; Messi the distributor, who we saw in the second goal; and Messi the dribbler, who attracted a glut of Alaves defenders before sliding the ball to Paco Alcacer for 3-1.
Luis Enrique leaves Barcelona with this cup his ninth and final trophy as Barca coach. The Asturian has, by and large, got the best out of Messi, something easier said than done as his predecessors will attest.
Cristiano Ronaldo may have the Ballon d’Or but it is some years since he has run a game in the same way as Messi does regularly. Drifting deep to pick up the ball then jinking past defenders or threading dangerous passes, there is virtually no answer to a player this talented.
Alaves found that out the hard way, on their big night.
Culled from The Independent UK