It’s almost 12 years to the day since an 18-year-old Lionel Messi played his first Champions League game against Chelsea.
Asier del Horno tried to kick him off the Stamford Bridge pitch and was sent off. Battered and bruised, Messi went the distance as Barcelona won 2-1. He didn’t score.
In the seven subsequent matches against them he has also failed to find the net and twice he has ended up on the losing side. But since that February 22nd fixture he has won everything with his club several times over and cemented his place as most people’s all-time greatest.
So much time has passed and yet so much has stayed the same regards the way Messi plays for Barcelona. He hit the frame of the goal twice that night. He is still pinging the woodwork more times in a season than some players have shots – 17 and counting so far.
Barcelona star Messi pictured posing at the FIFA football awards in London last October
Lionel Messi was on the receiving end of tough tackles by Asier Del Horno (right) when he first played against Chelsea for Barcelona in the Champions League in 2006
In the time that has followed, Messi has rewritten football records across the board
Messi faces Chelsea on Tuesday in pursuit of his fifth Champions League title with Barcelona
He is still impossible to play against. His team-mate, and a former rival back in his Arsenal days, Thomas Vermaelen told Sportsmail at the weekend: ‘If you gamble that he’s going to go one way then he’ll go the other and when he comes at you on the diagonal at such speed. You might know that he’s probably going to shoot off his left but he’s always quicker than you so knowing doesn’t help.’
He is still top scoring in Spain – he has 20 goals in La Liga – and although he now sports assorted tattoos and a thick reddish-brown beard he still strolls out on to the pitch before games as if he’s walking the dog. Another of Vermaelen quotes summed up the ordinariness: ‘He is just getting on with the job. I think for him it doesn’t even feel special.’
He is special, of course, and perhaps more so because everything that he has achieved to date has been at the same club. There have been times when he has peered over the fence and wondered if the grass might not be greener away from the Camp Nou. And whenever he has done that Roman Abramovich has had the helicopter on standby or the 500ft luxury yacht already moored in Barcelona to sail him away.
But it has never happened and with every passing season Messi becomes more and more ‘Mr Barcelona’. One of the things that pushed Neymar into the arms of Paris Saint Germain was knowing that he would always be second on the bill in Catalonia.
The day after Neymar’s two goals and one assist in seven minutes had provoked the greatest ever Champions League comeback, against PSG last season, Messi was on the front page of every paper in Spain being mobbed by delirious supporters. Neymar had manufactured that magic moment from nothing and yet Messi was still the embodiment of it.
So much of Barcelona’s glorious recent history is recorded through images of Messi. There is that headed second goal in Rome when Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League final – Edwin van der Sar aghast as the smallest man on the pitch leaps to head past him.
One reason Neymar left Barcelona was because he wouldn’t replace Messi as the main man
Messi comprised the ‘MSN’ partnership with Luis Suarez (left) and Neymar for three seasons
Messi’s fabulous header in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome is fondly remembered by Barcelona’s supporters
There is the goal he scored in the 2009 World Club Cup final when Barcelona completed a clean sweep of six out of six trophies in Pep Guardiola’s first full season. He scored it with his chest but supporters will remember it as the goal he converted with ‘his heart’ or better still with the ‘club badge’ in the centre of the Barcelona shirt.
Being the icon during such a golden age, and being the catalyst for that golden age, has afforded him certain powers and privileges. No one in the club’s history has been paid the estimated 45m euros net (a weekly wage of £600,000 before bonuses and image rights are considered) that his latest contract comes to.
Barcelona have their own strict rule on how much of the club’s revenue can be spent on wages and Messi has taken them to the limit of breaking that. But what president could ever sell him? He would have to resign the very next day.
Messi has never abused the power afforded him by his talent. There were stories around the appointment of Tata Martino as coach in 2013 suggesting it had been Messi’s call.
It’s true both hailed from the same club Newell’s Old Boys and in his presentation Martino said: ‘I have no doubt that Lionel and (his dad) Jorge played some part. I’m sure their opinions were sought. I don’t know how big a role they had in the decision.’
Pep Guardiola has previously stated his belief that Messi will spend his career at Barcelona
Javier Mascherano (right) had a new deal prioritised due to his relationship with Messi
Barcelona kept keeper Jose Pinto for longer than they might had he not been Messi’s friend
It did not go well with Martino only lasting a year. It seems most likely Messi did little more than give his approval as he would have done last summer when Ernesto Valverde was brought in.
He has occasionally influenced the recruitment or the retention of players too. Javier Mascherano’s deal was prioritised because it was something Messi wanted. And Barcelona kept reserve team keeper Jose Pinto for longer than they might otherwise, had he not been a pal of the No 10.
But these slight nods to Messi have been a small price to pay for the success he has brought to the club. And save one January morning in 2015 when he mysteriously missed training with a stomach bug having been left out of the first game of the year by Luis Enrique, he has rarely shown anything approaching petulance.
He ended up embracing Luis Enrique at the end of the season when they won the Champions League together.
At times he showed a fiery side under Guardiola’s stewardship. It’s part of club urban legend than when he was told by his coach he could not have a sugary drink before a game he defied orders and went and got one, breaking the stunned silence in the dressing room with the click of the can ring and the escaping fizz as he opened it.
Messi may have had tense moments with Luis Enrique but he had success under his guidance
Messi would have been consulted over the arrival of the less successful Tata Martino
Messi will return to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday looking for his first goal against Chelsea
But for the most part the relationship was perfect and Guardiola would have loved to have rekindled it at Manchester City were it not impossible to prise him away from Barcelona.
‘That’s where he belongs’ Guardiola has always said. And it is in Barcelona colours that he will run out at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night.
Over a decade since the first time – still looking for that first goal – but having rewritten all the records in those 12 monumental seasons since.