On Saturday night, while you were out enjoying yourselves without a care in the world, you may have had your fun tempered by a nagging feeling you were needed.
Not by a family member in a spot of bother, or a friend going through a tough time, but by Diego López.
The Espanyol goalkeeper might not be someone you’ve thought about all that much in the last couple of years, but the hangdog look on his face after being beaten by Lionel Messi’s second free-kick of the evening was impossible to ignore.
Looking at López sat on the turf, you just want to walk up and give him a hug.
You want to wander into the goalmouth with a warm bowl of chicken soup; to wrap him up in a duvet and tell him to take the rest of the week off to look after himself.
This is a man who has been deeply broken by the genius of one man: not once but twice.
If was the first time Messi has scored two free-kicks in the same league game, but the matter-of-fact way in which he put away his second makes you wonder how such a thing has never happened before.
López has a perfect view as the Barça man steps up to the ball, and couldn’t be better placed to keep an eye on the flight of the ball for its entire journey. It’s not quite fair to say Messi is making things easy for him, but he is certainly presenting him with as good a chance as possible.
The keeper looks almost on the verge of tears afterwards, as if he’s saying “I did everything right, and still…”
That’s the problem with Messi, though: doing everything right isn’t enough if he simply decided it isn’t enough, and that was undoubtedly the case against Espanyol. It was his way of saying “thanks for trying, but we both know how the world really works”.
If that was all Messi pulled off in the game, López’s reaction would still be more than acceptable. As we know, though, it was just the cherry on top of the cake.
Messi’s first free-kick goal of the game might not have been significantly better than the second, but it feels a great deal crueller.
You see, one of the most painful things for a defending side is being given the impression you have everything under control only to realise that was never even close to being the case.
The angle for Messi’s first is more inviting for the taker, sure, but the amount of whip on the delivery ensures López is forever chasing the unattainable while not given enough time to realise his task is impossible until after he has failed.
It’s like the ancient wheat and chessboard problem, where a grain is placed on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on until the total amount gets exponentially larger to the point of being unbearable.
Sure, López moves his feet well, speeds up his movement and flings himself to his left, but he goes from knowing that will be enough to thinking that will be enough to worrying it won’t to knowing your solution was never possible.
After Saturday’s game – actually that’s a lie, during Saturday’s game – we were reminded that Messi was a lowly fifth in the Ballon d’Or rankings.
That might sound like an oversight, but it’s simply a flaw in the process; a mindless decision to overlook the fact that reducing opponents to the verge of tears should always be the dominant factor with any individual award in the game.
Set pieces are one thing, but we’ve seen just as much ruthlessness from the Argentine from open play, not least with how he sweet-talked both Antoine Griezmann and Filipe Luis into signing over their souls to him over the course of 90 minutes.
It might be Messi’s outward persona, though, which allows him to continue doing what he does with such ease. He has never looked physically imposing, and by that token there ends up being a subliminal encouragement to put all his previous to one side and mistakenly convince yourself he’s human.
If López entered the game as a broken man – and, with Messi having put 11 goals past him before the meeting at Estadi Cornellà El Prat, he possibly should have done – it would have been impossible for Messi to break him again.
Instead, though, he tricked himself into having hope – perhaps the most hurtful thing he could have done in the circumstances.
Some predators can smell fear, allowing others in the animal kingdom to prepare themselves for their approach as much as they can and, in the process, navigate the wild.
Lionel Messi, however, can sense hope and shut it down at will.
He knows we’re playing his game, and even when you think you’re hosting him it turns out you’re lending your own house to him for a few hours. Whether it will still be your home at the end of that period depends on how generous he’s feeling, but at the very least there will be a Messi-shaped imprint on a few of the walls.
The quicker you learn to never hope, the quicker you will come to terms with the inevitable. Anything less than that and you’re setting yourself up to be broken, rebuilt and broken again.
That reminds me, I need to give Diego a refill on his soup.
By Tom Victor
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