Thursday, April 8, 2010

Magician Messi restores faith in football

At times, it would be easy to become disillusioned with modern football.
Confronted by the excessive wealth that has turned so many leading players into vulgar monstrosities who have little connection to the outside world, the petulant cheating that perniciously infiltrates so many games, the hyperbolic and hysterical media coverage, the cynical and corrupt commercialism that motivates the behaviour of so many administrators, there are plenty of reasons to fall out of love with the game.
But then you watch Lionel Messi play, and all is well with the world.
All the excesses, the selfishness, the posturing and the rampant commercialism...they all become irrelevant when the ball is at Messi’s feet; he makes you feel good about football again.
On Tuesday night in the Nou Camp, Messi was at his bewildering best. For 25 unforgettable minutes at the end of the first half, he played as well as any human being ever has. That might be a rather bold statement and maybe Pele, Puskas, Eusebio or Maradona in their prime might have rivalled it...but I doubt it.
As opposing goalkeeper Manuel Almunia ruefully noted in the immediate aftermath of his ordeal: “His skills are so great, he can do anything he wants, whenever he wants.” For once, it was no exaggeration.
Messi was unstoppable, scoring a 21-minute hat-trick — all three goals exquisitely memorable in their own right — to confirm Barcelona’s passage into the last four of the Champions’ League. The little Argentine master then largely dawdled through the second half as Pep Guardiola’s team took it easy but, just to make sure we hadn’t forgotten how good he is, he provided a final flourish to register his fourth goal of the evening (and, of course, it was another sensational solo effort).
Now Barcelona will face Inter Milan in the semi-final, and it will be intriguing to see how Jose Mourinho makes plans to deal with Messi’s threat; one thing for certain is that he will make plans.
For all his flair and flamboyance, Mourinho’s greatest strength is his tactical awareness as a coach. He prepares teams that are supremely well organised, disciplined, hard-working and difficult to beat, as CSKA Moscow found to their cost in Tuesday night’s other semi-final.
From the moment Wesley Sneijder’s low free-kick gave Inter an early lead, doubling their aggregate advantage to 2-0, you knew it was all over. There would be no miraculous comeback for CSKA — that just doesn’t happen against teams coached by Mourinho.
Inter are probably better than any team in world football at closing out a game, settling for what they’ve got and making sure the opposition aren’t given a route back.
But nullifying the threat of CSKA Moscow is one thing, stopping Barcelona over three hours is quite another; there can be no greater challenge for any coach than stifling Messi, and it will be fascinating to see how Mourinho attempts to do so.
After Messi’s astonishing exploits on Tuesday night, anything else had to be an anti-climax...but Wednesday’s fare wasn’t bad either.
Manchester United have always been at their best when they play with controlled fury: pace, power, determination and aggression. Unlike Barcelona, United are not a team that can patiently craft victories — Sir Alex Ferguson’s team are much better when they are going ‘at it’ full throttle, full speed.
Those qualities were conspicuous by their absence in the rather feeble capitulation to Chelsea at the weekend but, in the opening half-hour on Wednesday night, United were back to their very best as they swept into a three-goal lead to seemingly secure their passage at the expense of Bayern Munich.
But then, just as we were preparing for a comfortable second half of watching United stroll their way into the semis, the irrepressible Ivica Olic pulled one back for the visitors on the stroke of half time to set up a cliffhanging second period.
Olic’s goal completely changed the complexion of the tie. Whereas United had been belligerent and forceful at the start of the first half, in the second they were tentative and anxious. And after Rafael was rightly sent off for two unnecessary yellow cards, the Red Devils were forced to defend as they’ve rarely defended before.
Bayern were utterly dominant in possession, giving a masterclass in how to exploit the advantages of playing against ten men, but for a while it seemed that United’s dogged and determined defensive display might hold out. That was until Arjen Robben produced a piece of magic to fizz an unstoppable 20-yard volley into the left-hand corner, and United were beaten.
At the same time, Lyon were doing what United couldn’t and holding onto a slender one-goal aggregate advantage to dispose of their compatriots Bordeaux. Lyon — conquerors of Real Madrid in the last round — will now face Bayern, whose pace on the flanks in the form of Robben and Franck Ribery should allow them to prevail.
Football just doesn’t get much better than the games to which we’ve been treated in the Champions’ League this week — and the good news is that they were only the quarter-finals; let’s hope the semis and the final can maintain the sparkling standards we’ve witnessed thus far.

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