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Messi a man on a mission in the Champions League

September 19, 2018
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Barcelona forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the group B Champions League soccer match between FC Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi looked every bit a man on a mission.

Messi started the Champions League in brilliant fashion Tuesday night, setting a record with his eighth hat trick in the competition to lead Barcelona to a 4-0 rout of PSV Eindhoven.

The outstanding performance was the first step toward Messi keeping his promise that the season would end with Barcelona lifting another European Cup.

Barcelona’s otherwise excellent 2017-18 campaign that ended with the Spanish league and Copa del Rey titles had one blemish: a shock 3-0 loss at Roma in the Champions League that squandered a 4-1 first-leg victory and meant elimination in the quarterfinals.

That made it three years in a row that Barcelona has been ousted in the quarterfinals of a tournament that Messi has helped it win four times, but not since 2015. Meanwhile, Barcelona has had to endure rival Real Madrid winning it three times in a row.

With that loss to Roma in April still hanging over the club, Messi addressed Barcelona’s fans at Camp Nou before the club’s traditional exhibition match to kick off the new season.

“If last season was very good with the Copa and La Liga, we all still feel bad about our exit from the Champions League and how it happened,” Messi told Barcelona’s supporters in August. “Today we promise to do everything we can to bring that beautiful and coveted cup once again to this stadium.”

Long after establishing himself as the club’s all-time leading scorer, Messi has finally taken on the role of undisputed team leader after inheriting the captain’s armband from Andres Iniesta.

That meant shedding his reticence to talk in public. And when he spoke out, he set the bar as high as possible.

Messi backed up his words against PSV to ensure Barcelona made a strong start in a tough Group B that also includes Tottenham and Inter Milan.

Now 31, Messi also knows that his best chances to win the World Cup are most likely behind him after another disappointment with Argentina this summer, meaning his final place in football history will likely depend on sustained excellence at Barcelona.

Messi’s first goal against PSV was a beauty as he used his left foot to lift a free kick over the wall and beyond the reach of goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet. He netted two more goals from passes by Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez.

″(Messi) takes extraordinary things and makes them routine,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “The free kick got us going. It was a majestic strike . I have never seen anything like him in my career. We have to pinch ourselves to realize that we are seeing a player that is one-of-a-kind.”

Messi’s first was his eighth goal from a free kick so far in 2018.

Rakitic said that when Messi steps up to take a free kick, “often times, you’re already thinking about where to celebrate it.”

Messi has scored twice from free kicks in six matches this season. He unlocked the Alaves defense to start a 3-0 win in the opening round of the Spanish league.

Barcelona will seek to keep its lead of the Spanish league and get a fifth win in as many rounds when it hosts Girona on Sunday. Messi will also be aiming to increase his tally of seven goals in six matches across all competitions.

Last season, Messi added to Barcelona’s 6-1 demolition of Girona by slotting a free kick under the defensive wall. He repeated that same trick to score against Alaves last month.

PSV coach Mark van Bommel, a former Barcelona player, tried to take away that option for Messi by ordering a player to get on his knees behind the defensive barrier to block a low strike. Messi clipped it over their heads instead.

“He put it right in the corner of the goal frame,” van Bommel said. “Technically, Messi is the best player in the world.”

Barcelona will have to wait three weeks before its next Champions League match, when it visits Tottenham in London.

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