By Paul Gardner
Quite a week -- with the European Champions League providing most of the excitement and the fun.
Towering above everything and everyone else we have the massively wee figure of Lionel Messi who showed us, within a few minutes of the start of the Barcelona-AC Milan rematch, that nothing about soccer -- not its certainties nor its traditions, nor even its possibilities -- is safe when he is on the prowl.
Here was Barca, backs firmly against the wall, down by 2-0 to Milan. And here were the Italians, exactly where they wanted to be, ready to defend the hell out of the game on the opponents’ field. A situation tailor made for them. Barca needed at least three goals -- how likely was that against canny, cool, clever and calculating Italian defenders?
The doubts about Barcelona -- so many of us had them, I certainly did -- were quickly blasted to smithereens by an astonishing goal from Messi. An impossible goal, really, out of this world ... a goal that told you that anything is possible when this young man is at his best.
How was it that Messi, just four minutes into this nerve-wrenching, tension-wracked game -- imprisoned by a circle of five Italians on the edge of their penalty area, with no space and no time do anything at all, did something so utterly sublime that trying to describe it seems like desecration?
Allow me to desecrate for a moment: One moment Messi is poised, the ball at his feet, nowhere to go, no room for movement -- those Italian defenders know all about closing someone down, they do it almost hermetically. The next moment, while the Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati is still facing forward, the ball is already behind him, running down the inside of the netting.
It was that quick, that precise, that beautiful. No run at the ball, virtually no backlift. But a powerful arcing shot that found its target in the upper corner of the Milan goal before Abbiati had time for the slightest reaction.
For the Italians this must have been a demoralizing moment, an intimation that they were facing an opponent not of this world, that it wasn’t going to matter how well they played, they were fated to lose this one. That feeling turned to numbing dread when M’Baye Niang broke through and hit a shot that was not quite as perfect as Messi’s. The ball hit the goalpost. The soccer gods were at work. Messi rubbed it in just before halftime with another superb goal -- again, too quick, too sharp and accurate with his shooting, for the Milan defenders.
Trying to cope with an opponent in such phenomenal form unbalances everything, makes the entire defense nervous. If five defenders couldn’t tame him on the first goal ... So Messi was more closely marked in the second half, no more goals from him -- but that only meant opportunities for the others, beautifully taken by David Villa and Jordi Alba. It finished 4-0, but there was magic in the air in the Camp Nou and already, before that final goal went in, there was the certainty that Barcelona could do no wrong on this night.
No, it wasn’t all about Messi, there was brilliance enough among all the Barca players. Even so, it is not invidious to single out Messi. Would this remarkable comeback by Barcelona have happened without that breath-taking opening goal of his, that immediate dagger right through the heart of the Italian defense, that goal of unfair brilliance that upended every calculation -- every logical and surely achievable calculation -- that the Italians must have made about defending their way to victory?
A day later we saw Arsenal almost pull off another unlikely comeback. They couldn’t manage it, they fell one goal short ... but the betting here is that they would have done it had Messi been an Arsenal player. Bayern Munich played poorly, was there for the taking. But Arsenal, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, simply did not have the thoroughbreds -- and you need 11 of them -- to pull this off.
It was exciting, for sure, but where the Barcelona magic had made it seem a certainty that they must beat Milan, Arsenal were simply carrying too many ordinary players to allow anything extraordinary to break through. Transforming the ordinary into the magical was once something that Wenger seemed capable of doing. But not any more.
If his touch has gone missing, nowhere was its lack more evident than in his decision to start midfielder Tomas Rosicky. And Rosicky, guilty of persistently misplacing and mistiming his passes, played the entire game. If it be argued that Wenger had no option, with Jack Wilshere injured, that is correct. But it is Wenger’s own fault that the only possible replacement for Rosicky from the bench was Andrey Arshavin, because it was Wenger who decided, back when, that these were players good enough to help Arsenal achieve his lofty aims.
If coaches are to be held responsible for defeats, then Alex Ferguson deserves to be blamed for his team’s defeat to Real Madrid. Ferguson, totally distraught apparently, failed to appear at the postgame press conference. Too upset by the Turkish referee’s decision to red card Nani.
But ManU, sitting atop of the English league, playing at home, a club with a magnificent European pedigree, leading 1-0 ... and it cannot protect that lead for the final 35 minutes of the game, even though down to 10 men? After the red card to Nani, Real’s coach Jose Mourinho reacted at once, bringing on Luka Modric -- the man who, 10 minutes later, scored an exceptional tying goal.
Yet Ferguson had not reacted at all to the way that the game was bound to change when Nani departed. His first substitution did not come until four minutes after Real Madrid had gone 2-1 up on Ronaldo’s goal. During the crucial moments after the red card, Ferguson was to be seen in apoplectic argument with the fourth official, when he might have been calmly working out how to face the changed circumstances of the game.
So all the English teams are out of the Champions League. A stat that tells us nothing about the English game, really, since so few of the players involved with Arsenal, Chelsea, ManU and ManCity, are English. It tells us a bit more about the Premier League -- enough, one would like to think, to silence the tiresome loudmouths who go on and on about the EPL being the best league in the world. But I fear it takes more than facts and defeats to make those guys shut up.