BARCELONA (Reuters) – Lionel Messi’s first act as Barcelona captain was to pledge to bring the Champions League back to the Nou Camp and in Tuesday’s Group B opener against PSV Eindhoven he showed he meant business, scoring a hat-trick in a rampant 4-0 win.
“Messi does extraordinary things and makes them look routine,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde said.
“When he stops playing it will be difficult to find someone like him. It’s a relief to have him on your team and a nightmare to have him against you.”
The Argentine pierced a hole in the stubborn Dutch champions with an exquisitely struck free kick in the first half, then produced two ruthless finishes from inside the area late on to complete a record eighth treble in Europe’s top competition.
“Today he scored three goals but his first strike opened the game up. It was a magisterial free kick,” Valverde added.
“We have to pinch ourselves to remind us that we are living through a unique era.”
Even PSV coach Mark van Bommel lauded the five-times world player of the year, saying: “For me he is the best player in the world. It’s strange to me that he does not win the Ballon d’Or every single year.”
Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen added: “Messi always delivers. There’s no player that does that quite like him. He’s always ready and he’s always decisive. But we have 10 other players who also contributed to the victory.”
Messi has lifted the Champions League four times with Barca since making his debut in 2004, although the Catalans have underachieved in the competition since last winning it in 2015.
They have failed to get beyond the quarter-finals for the last three seasons while arch rivals Real Madrid have won club soccer’s most coveted prize three years in a row.
Messi inherited the captain’s armband after Andres Iniesta departed last June and made a pointed speech about his team’s recent failings in the Champions League last month, telling fans on the Nou Camp pitch: “I promise to do everything to bring that beautiful trophy back here.”
Barca will face gruelling competition to win the trophy from the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Juventus and Real Madrid should they progress to the last 16.
But fuelled by Messi’s brilliance, they have already laid down a marker.