Lionel Messi was cheered on by the boisterous FNB Stadium crowd every time the TV cameras showed him on the Barcelona bench in Wednesday’s Mandela Centenary Cup clash against Mamelodi Sundowns.
The approximate 90 000-strong crowd would’ve been disappointed by the fact that Messi didn’t take to the field from the start, but there was no doubt who they wanted to see.
And when he started warming up after an hour into the match – following a number of “Messi! Messi! Messi!” chants, they got their wish.
The Argentinian magician eventually took off his tracksuit, and came on to the pitch in the 75th minute to the roar of the crowd.
And despite reports of him battling with an injury niggle, Messi showed his class making an immediate impact as he slipped into space on the right-hand side of the Sundowns defence, and chipped the ball into the box, although the ball was cleared.
Messi kept the Masandawana backline busy, and even got his customary shot on goal. Sundowns goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene managed to keep it out, despite spilling what was a relatively straightforward catch.
One of the men who kept a close eye on Messi was central defender Wayne Arendse. An experienced campaigner who made his name at Santos, Arendse led the backline in the absence of Ricardo Nascimento, who missed out due to flu.
The flailing Soumahoro Bangaly was caught napping throughout, and gifted Barcelona their first goal in the 3-1 victory with a poor clearance straight to Ousmane Dembele, who lashed the ball home from the edge of the box.
Arendse, though, didn’t just enjoy the challenge of marking Messi – his night got even better when the No 10 agreed to exchange jerseys with him.
The former Capetonian was later seen hiding his prized possession in the pocket of his Sundowns overcoat!
Sundowns had their chances, none more so than Percy Tau and Tebogo Langerman’s opportunities. Tau just had to bang the ball home early in the first half, but instead he tried to get cute with a chip and directed the ball straight into Marc-André ter Stegen’s gloves.
Later, Langerman was in space inside the Barcelona box, but rather than shooting at goal, he tried to square it to Tau – which saw coach Pitso Mosimane even gesturing with his left foot that the left back should’ve taken a shot.
But despite the clear gulf in class, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde enjoyed the occasion. “I liked our opponents a lot because of their enthusiasm, it was a very nice match and the atmosphere was fantastic,” he told the Barcelona website.
“For us, it’s an honour that we’ve been invited for such a celebration. We enjoyed it and wanted to win for the fans that follow us from so far away.
“It’s always a pleasure to be with them, and it has been a great learning experience.”
Ter Stegen added: “It has been a great experience for us and we are pleased to have won in front of the South African fans. We really liked the atmosphere and I can only say ‘Thank you for the support’. We hope to return soon.”