Lionel Messi looked every bit a man on a mission.
Messi started the Champions League in brilliant fashion on Tuesday night, setting a record with his eighth hat-trick in the competition to lead Barcelona to a 4-0 rout of PSV Eindhoven.
The outstanding performance was the first step toward Messi keeping his promise that the season would end with Barcelona lifting another European Cup.
Barcelona’s otherwise excellent 2017-18 campaign that ended with the Spanish league and Copa del Rey titles had one blemish: a shock 3-0 loss at Roma in the Champions League that saw them squander a 4-1 first-leg victory and meant elimination in the quarter-finals.
That made it three years in a row that Barca have been ousted in the quarter-finals of a tournament that Messi has helped the Catalan club win four times, but not since 2015. Meanwhile, Barcelona have had to endure arch-rivals Real Madrid winning the competition three times in a row.
With that loss to Roma in April still hanging over the club, Messi addressed Barcelona’s fans at Camp Nou before the club’s traditional exhibition match to kick off the new season. “If last season was very good with the Copa and La Liga, we all still feel bad about our exit from the Champions League and how it happened,” Messi told Barcelona’s supporters in August. “Today we promise to do everything we can to bring that beautiful and coveted cup once again to this stadium.”
Long after establishing himself as the club’s all-time leading scorer, Messi has finally taken on the role of undisputed team leader after inheriting the captain’s armband from Andres Iniesta.
That meant shedding his reticence to talk in public. And when he spoke out, he set the bar as high as possible.
Messi backed up his words against PSV to ensure Barcelona made a strong start in a tough Group B that also includes Tottenham and Inter Milan.
Now 31, Messi also knows that his best chances to win the World Cup are most likely behind him after another disappointment with Argentina this summer, meaning his final place in football history will likely depend on sustained excellence at Barcelona.
Messi’s first goal against PSV was a beauty as he lifted a free-kick over the wall and beyond the reach of goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet. He netted two more goals from passes by Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez.
“[Messi] takes extraordinary things and makes them routine,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde, pictured, said. “The free-kick got us going. It was a majestic strike. I have never seen anything like him in my career. We have to pinch ourselves to realise that we are seeing a player that is one of a kind.”
Messi’s first was his eighth goal from a free-kick so far in 2018. Rakitic said that when his team-mate steps up to take a free-kick, “often times, you’re already thinking about where to celebrate it.”
Barcelona will seek to maintain their lead in La Liga and get a fifth win in as many games when they host Girona on Sunday. Messi will also be aiming to increase his tally of seven goals in six matches across all competitions.
Last season, Messi added to Barca’s 6-1 demolition of Girona by slotting a free-kick under the defensive wall. He repeated that same trick to score against Alaves last month.
PSV coach Mark van Bommel, a former Barcelona player, tried to take away that option for Messi by ordering one of his players to get on his knees behind the defensive wall to block a low strike. Messi clipped it over their heads instead.
“He put it right in the corner of the goal frame,” Van Bommel said. “Technically, Messi is the best player in the world.”
Barcelona will have to wait three weeks before their next Champions League match, when they visit Tottenham in London.