Magical Messi helps Barcelona hold off Spurs fightback
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Champions League Group B: Tottenham Hotspur 2 Barcelona 4
A stunning individual display by Lionel Messi helped Barcelona see off a spirited Tottenham Hotspur comeback at Wembley Stadium to help them take charge of Group B in the Champions League.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team looked down and out at the break after Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic had netted to put them 2-0 up.
Yet Spurs come out a different beast after the break and twice reduced the deficit to one with Harry Kane and Erik Lamela on target.
Unfortunately for the Lilywhites, Messi was having none of it and scored twice, in addition to hitting the post in the same spot on two occasions, as the visitors earned a 4-2 win in thrilling circumstances.
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Barcelona showed plenty of respect to Spurs in the build-up to the tie by resting Messi for their La Liga clash with Athletic Bilbao last Saturday.
It backfired as the Catalonia club could only draw 1-1 to extend their winless run to three matches and they were without the injured Sergi Roberto and suspended Samuel Umtiti for this Group B encounter too
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Ernesto Valverde did still manage to name the likes of Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Coutinho and Luis Suarez in his starting XI to show how difficult a night this would be for Tottenham.
Pochettino had others problems as well because he was missing Serge Aurier, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen through injury.
It contributed towards him making five changes to the team which beat Huddersfield Town 2-0 in the Premier League last weekend.
Paulo Gazzaniga, Danny Rose and Eric Dier dropped to the bench and were replaced by Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies and Victor Wanyama.
Meanwhile, Vertonghen and Dembele missed out completely with injuries, and they were replaced by Harry Winks and Lamela.
On the bench for Spurs was teenager Oliver Skipp plus Kyle Walker-Peters and the attacking reinforcements came in the shape of fringe figures Fernando Llorente and Moussa Sissoko.
It was far from ideal, but it was the cards Pochettino had been dealt and he wrote in his programme notes: “I have confidence in all of the players and everyone must be ready to contribute and show their quality when we need them.”
The Wembley surface was noticeably below its usual quality with Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight world title fight with Alexander Povetkin taking place at the Brent venue on September 22 and clearing affecting the pitch with the grass brown in patches.
Spurs played ‘Glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur’ ahead of kick-off in a tribute to Chas Hodges, who passed away last month and the Lilywhites supporters’ were hoping it was going to be another famous European night under the lights.
It was the hosts who got proceedings underway at a Wembley Stadium which was a cauldron of noise, but it didn’t stay that way for long.
Just two minutes were on the clock when Barcelona showed their class and Messi was at the heart of it.
The Argentine magician was given too much space in the middle and clipped a beauty of a through ball between Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier.
Lloris come rushing out of his goal, but Jordi Alba got there first and cut back for ex-Liverpool playmaker Coutinho and he composed himself before drilling into the bottom, left corner from 18-yards.
After two minutes, Tottenham were already chasing the game, but the home fans were not disheartened too much and maintained their high decibel levels.
More encouragement arrived when Spurs attacked well in the seventh minute and the intense pressing of the hosts showed they were determined to make this as difficult as possible for Barcelona.
A yellow card for Alderweireld, with 14 on the clock, briefly halted the positive mood inside the stadium as the Belgian received a caution from shoving Coutinho to the floor and from the resulting free kick, Clement Lenglet headed harmlessly over.
It was the start of a brief period where referee Felix Zwayer turned into a pantomime villain in Brent.
A stoppage in play occurred with 22 minutes gone when Busquets, fresh from getting a whack from Lamela, needed treatment.
He was able to resume two minutes later and the halt in proceedings allowed Barca to regain some control of the clash after Tottenham had began to assert their authority, albeit without creating any chances.
An opportunity did arrive in the 25th minute when Alderweireld’s long pass was headed down by Son and Kane let fly from range, but it was simple for Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
There were positives for Spurs to take as the half an hour mark approached and then in the blink of an eye the La Liga champions doubled their advantage.
Messi chipped the ball into Suarez’s path and he chest down for Coutinho, but the Brazilian miscued his effort and only sliced it straight up in the air.
He managed to keep the ball in though, and his accidental cut back fell for Rakitic, who hit the sweetest of half volleys from 22-yards to make it 2-0 via the post.
It was a wonderful strike and yet Spurs, with over an hour remaining, were facing up to the prospect of a monumental task at the national stadium and it could have been worst had Suarez drilled home, not wide, when he peeled off Davison Sanchez.
After struggling for opportunities, two then arrived at once for Tottenham in the 31st and 32nd minute respectively.
First Son found the back of the net from a close-range volley, but it was correctly ruled out for handball after Trippier controlled Davies’ wayward cross with his arm.
Then Kane turned well and found Lucas Moura, who cut inside and freed Lamela on the left-hand side.
Lamela’s cross, intended for Son at the back post, took a touch off Nelson Semedo and appeared to be heading in, but ter Stegen produced a stunning save to keep the score at 2-0.
It showed what Spurs could do, but they kept giving the ball away in dangerous areas and it nearly saw Messi score in the 36th minute, yet thankfully Alderweireld got a thigh to the shot and it allowed Lloris to just about claim virtually under his crossbar.
Wanyama was the next Tottenham player to go into the book of referee Zwayer when he fouled Messi cynically in the 42nd minute.
Lamela followed the Kenyan seconds later when he received a caution for catching Busquets with a high arm.
As the seconds ticked away towards the end of the first half, Barcelona kept the ball smartly and despite three minutes of stoppage time, it remained 2-0 at the break.
If Spurs were to find a way back into the contest, it was crucial they scored the next goal, but Messi nearly officially put the game to bed in the 47th minute.
He drove at the Tottenham back four in his typical menacing fashion, but just as you expected the net to bulge, the ball crashed off the post.
The chance sparked a frantic spell as Spurs won their first corner of the game in the 50th minute after good play by Wanyama and Moura.
It came to nothing, as Kane’s header was blocked, and then Messi struck the post for a second time in quick succession.
Sanchez sloppily gave the ball away and Suarez found the Barcelona captain and he yet again put terror into the home defence and just like before, his 18-yard strike seemed set for the corner, but bounced off the post again
Less than 60 seconds after that 51st minute opening, Tottenham attacked and this one they made count.
Spurs’ most effective player so far Lamela was central to it as he flicked the ball over the head of an opponent before angling a pass into Kane.
The forward, who has faced questions about his form this season, showed predatory instincts to sell Semedo a dummy and bend the ball around Gerard Pique and into the bottom corner.
Wembley was rocking now and with 38 minutes of the Group B encounter remaining, the hosts were dreaming of a comeback.
Messi put a stop to that with an overdue, but deserved goal in the 57th minute to hush the expectant Spurs crowd once again.
He started the move, clipping the ball out to Alba, like he had done for the opener, and the Spanish full-back cut back for the Argentinean superstar to bend precisely past Lloris and into the net from inside the penalty area.
It was another goal of the highest order and Tottenham’s mini-revival was stopped quickly in its tracks.
Pochettino reacted by taking off Wanyama, on a yellow and after a demanding night, with Dier replacing him.
Spurs, to their credit, were still working extremely hard and the perseverance of Kane paid off in the 66th minute.
The forward chased after a loose ball and won it back off Lenglet and then quickly moved it inside to Son.
He set up Lamela and the former River Plate youngster, given too much space, curled towards goal and saw his effort deflect off Lenglet and beat the helpful ter Stegen to cut the deficit back to one-goal.
Once again Tottenham were back in the game and yet everything nearly went up in flames almost straight from the restart.
Before that, Pochettino made his second substitution with Sissoko coming on for Son and then Barcelona almost made it 4-2.
Sanchez’s back pass was short and so Lloris had to come rushing out to stop Suarez getting there first.
Tottenham’s captain managed that, but then had to follow after the ball to stop Messi claiming possession and he could only slide tackle the ball off the Argentine.
It was now a footrace between Messi and Alderweireld with the Spurs goal empty and luckily the Belgian had a head start and was able to clear the ball off the Barca captain and out for a goal kick.
Straight after that crazy few seconds Tottenham created an opening of their own, but Sissoko blazed over from Trippier’s knock back.
Spurs had Barcelona on the ropes now and Busquets received a yellow card for a foul on Lamela before Pique went down and needed treatment.
The next chance occurred in the 77th minute, but Trippier’s cross, following a superb Kane pass, flashed across the area and Semedo luckily cleared at the back post.
Tottenham then suffered a blow as Lamela went down and had to be replaced with 79 on the clock and Llorente took his place as Spurs looked for a big finish.
It was all Pochettino’s side now and they went close again with six minutes left as Moura beat a couple of opponents and as his eyes caught the whites of the goal net, Lenglet come across impressively to deflect his shot wide of ter Stegen’s goal.
From the resulting corners Kane saw a header go wide off a Barcelona defender and then Sanchez’s knock down just evaded Llorente.
Spurs were pressing and pressing and then, a slight lapse in concentration, saw the Group B game decided.
Sissoko looked to dummy a pass and Alba read it and passed into Suarez, who showed Sissoko how to dummy as he left the ball for the unmarked Messi and cool as you like, he slotted past Lloris to clinch the points for Barcelona.
The Tottenham fans began to head for the exit doors now as despite four minutes of stoppage time being added on, this one was over.
Spurs’ supporters still inside Wembley Stadium did make their feelings known to the players as they cheered the team on until the end.
When the full time whistle did finally arrive, it was greeted with applause all-round as Tottenham had produced a battling second half display to push Barcelona close.
Messi proved the difference in the end with two fine goals, but Spurs could be proud of their efforts.
If they play like they did in the second half for the final four games in this group, they may just make the knock-out stage as runners-up in Group B.
Next up for Pochettino’s team it is back to the bread and butter of the Premier League where they will face struggling Cardiff City on Saturday at Wembley Stadium.
Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris ©; Trippier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Davies; Wanyama (Dier 57), Winks; Moura, Lamela (Llorente 79), Son (Sissoko 67); Kane
Unused substitutes: Gazzaniga, Rose, Walker-Peters, Skipp.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Jordi Alba; Arthur (Vidal 87), Busquets (Vermaelen 90), Rakitic; Messi ©, L.Suarez, Coutinho (Rafinha 83).
Unused substitutes: Cillessen, D.Suarez, Dembele, El Haddadi.