Lionel Messi was described as unstoppable by Jurgen Klopp after the Liverpool manager saw the forward torment his side in the Champions League, but the incomparable striker is at the centre of a controversy that has threatened to bar the Argentine from the semi-final second leg at Anfield.
Television pictures show the Argentina forward appearing to lash out at Fabinho, throwing a punch when the Liverpool midfielder attempted to block a pass to Barcelona strike partner Luiz Suarez.
More than 15,000 people have called for the scorer of a sensational first-leg free-kick to be retrospectively banned, ruling him out of the return match at Anfield tonight.
Barcelona are overwhelming favourites to win the Champions League tie, arriving with a 3-0 advantage provided at Camp Nou by a Messi brace and Suarez’s opener against his old club.
Messi grabbed the second goal with a tap-in following a fortunate rebound off the Liverpool woodwork before bending a spectacular long-range free-kick beyond keeper Alisson to give Barcelona a commanding lead.
Fabinho was booked for his part in the off-the-ball incident, even though pictures seem to show Messi jumping to strike his marker’s face.
The clash had similarities with the only sending off Messi has suffered in his career, receiving his marching orders after his red mist descended against Hungary on his international debut in 2005.
Just 30 seconds after coming on, the attentions of Hungary defended Vilmos Vanczák incensed Messi, who threw an elbow into the defender’s face.
Lionel Messi news – Messi ban?
“I went on with a lot of time left in the game, but then what happened, happened,” Messi said at the time.
“He came through me and had hold of me and I wanted to break free, but the referee interpreted it as though I had tried to shove him away.
“It was not like I had dreamed it would be.”
As the build-up to kick-off in the Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield continued, a petition urging officials to ban Messi for violent conduct passed the 15,000-mark.
“Punching is not football,” wrote one signatory. “He thinks he is above the rest.”
Another said: “Messi punched Fabinho. This is not fair play and he must be punished.”
Discussing Messi’s attitude, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said: “He instills fear into our opponents. He always hows up when we need him the most.”
A late ban for Messi would be a lifeline for Liverpool, who are without prolific strikers Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah as they bid to overcome the odds and reach the Champions League final.
Messi has scored an incredible 26 times against English clubs in the Champions League – the most by any player against a single country’s teams in the competition.