The defender’s late header took the Blaugrana’s Copa del Rey semi-final with Sevilla to extra-time before Martin Braithwaite secured a final berth
For much of this season, it has seemed like Barcelona fans may never again gaze upon their captain and talisman Lionel Messi holding a trophy aloft.
The Argentina forward has won so many in his glittering career, both with the Catalans and as an individual, and yet, for a player with the ability to make time stand still, it is still slipping away from him.
Now he has a great chance, against either Levante or Athletic Club, in the Copa del Rey final, as Barcelona refused to give in against Sevilla, a 3-0 victory after extra-time on Wednesday ensuring they overturned the 2-0 semi-final first-leg defeat in Andalusia.
Age told on Messi as Barcelona looked to him to make the breakthrough time and again in the second leg, with Julen Lopetegui’s dogged Sevilla defence quick to block his shots, hound him down and refuse to give him the space they did in La Liga on Saturday.
At 33, he is still magnificent and the division’s top scorer, but he cannot do it all by himself.
Here he needed a helping hand, literally from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, as he saved Lucas Ocampos’ penalty, then Gerard Pique, whose header in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time sent the game into extra-time.
With the 4-1 thrashing by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League leaving them unlikely to progress in that competition, and with Atletico Madrid five points clear of them at the top of La Liga while also possessing a game in hand, the Copa del Rey still represented their best chance to win a trophy, despite the first-leg deficit.
In the 2019 quarter-finals, Barca came from behind to beat Sevilla after a 2-0 away defeat in the first leg, thumping the Andalusians 6-1, but two years down the line, the Blaugrana have hit rock bottom and are slowly on their way up.
Ronald Koeman’s side has hope, in the form of the sublime Pedri, the recovering Ansu Fati and newcomer Ilaix Moriba, but it will take them time to mature and gel into a team capable of fighting for major honours. What they have, in spades, is enthusiasm.
While in seasons past only winning the Copa del Rey would have been seen as a disappointment, this season it would be viewed as the first of many trophies for the next Barca generation, and a parting gift for Messi, should he leave at the end of his contract in the summer.
Barcelona came out swinging at Camp Nou and did not relent, forcing the game to extra-time at the death.
Ousmane Dembele broke the deadlock in the 12th minute, with Sevilla clearly not heeding the warnings of two earlier off-target efforts. It was a brilliant finish, leaving Tomas Vaclik rooted to the spot from the edge of the box.
Barca could not add to their lead before half-time, but put on the kind of performance which, had they been capable of in the first half of the season, would have them sitting top of the table by now.
It would have been a different story against PSG too, although that is not to say they would be able to handle the electric Kylian Mbappe any better. We will see in Paris next week how far they have come since then.
Until Pique’s equaliser, Messi came closest as he saw an effort scrambled off the line by Marcos Acuna, while Jordi Alba crashed a strike against the crossbar.
Sevilla could have killed the game in the 73rd minute when Oscar Mingueza, otherwise exceptional, clashed with Ocampos and conceded a penalty. It was cleverly engineered by the Argentine, but there was nothing smart about his effort from the spot, saved by Ter Stegen to give Barcelona a lifeline, which Pique took with both hands.
The Catalan, PSG thrashing notwithstanding, has played at a high level in recent weeks following his recovery from a serious knee injury, which is no mean feat.
Credit to Antoine Griezmann too, left out in the cold with the recent shift in formation to 3-5-2, but the France international came off the bench to carve out the chance for Pique with a fine cross. His relationship with Messi is said to have improved this season, and this was a noteworthy contribution to the Argentine’s cause.
Even through extra-time Sevilla kept the forward well-marshalled despite Fernando’s red card leaving them with 10 men, but they could not stop Martin Braithwaite adding a third, heading home Alba’s cross.
Messi has bailed out his team-mates so many times, it was about time they did something for him.
It was backs against the walls in the final stages as Sevilla searched for the away goal to turn the game on its head, but Barcelona held on to give Messi the shot at the finale he deserves.