With Messi on the prowl, nothing's sure in soccer

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.

17 comments about "With Messi on the prowl, nothing's sure in soccer".
  1. Jordan Thompson , March 15, 2013 at 3 a.m.

    I smiled. Thanks Paul, good dissertation about the EPL's state of affairs... Ferguson lost a chance to keep a tie by bursting a vein.

  2. Chris Mitchell, March 15, 2013 at 3:12 a.m.

    Paul, while I'm not one of the loudmouths who say the EPL is the best in the world, I disagree with your implication that the English teams' exits are an indictment of the quality of the English league. Consider who they played.

    Manchester United were drawn against Real Madrid, and narrowly lost in part due to a controversial call (though I don't think the red card was a terrible decision). Arsenal were against Bayern, consistently one of the top 3 or 4 teams in Europe year after year. Arsenal are the fifth-best team in England this season, yet they only lost to Bayern on away goals. Manchester City had to face both Dortmund and Madrid in the first round. Chelsea are the only of the teams who can be said to have legitimately underachieved, and they should not even be in the competition based on their 5th-place domestic league finish last season. So it's not particularly surprising that they have all been knocked out.

  3. david fernandes, March 15, 2013 at 4:52 a.m.

    Mr Paul, its a shame to see a league such epl that makes billions dollars on revenue holding only 2 champions in the last 12 years. Dont know when they are going to wake up and realize their strategy against foreign teams are not working. Dont get me wrong im a fan of epl.

  4. feliks fuksman, March 15, 2013 at 7:10 a.m.

    Great article! Well written, moreover to the point.

  5. Gus Keri, March 15, 2013 at 8:16 a.m.

    The absence of the Englsih clubs from this year QF of the UCL means only one thing. It's an off-year for the English. That's all. But as always, pundits like to exagerate. In the last 8 years, 3 Englsih clusb won it (Liverpool, Man Utd and Chelsea). Only Barcelona (3 times), Inter and AC Milan won it in this period. This year, the English had a very tough draws. Next year, they will bounce back.

  6. tim francis, March 15, 2013 at 8:44 a.m.

    'Balanced critique of the week by the usual wise eye of Mr. Gardner. Barcelona's prowess on defence deserves a lot of praise too, even with as little as they need to play D due to an amazing possession game. As soon as they lose the ball, Barca turns into a beastly chance-taking, persistent, all-team denier of space and time. Even ball masters Messi and Xavi made key steals both up and back in the pitch.

  7. Kent James, March 15, 2013 at 9:23 a.m.

    The section on Messi and Barcelona is superb; your phrasing is eloquent and the analysis accurate. Denigrating the EPL as the best league in the world is easy to do this year (based on Champions League results), but seems to be more a result of your (somewhat annoying) anti-British bias. While some Brit-bashing may have been appropriate 20 yrs ago, when (at least in the US), too many people looked to the British as the masters of the universe as far as soccer was concerned, but I think you've knocked them off the pedestal, so it's time to let it go. And the question of which is the best league I think is more than which league has the best team. With both Real Madrid and Barcelona, I think it is easy to argue that the Spanish league has the best team, but I don't think that makes it the best league. It seems that other teams rarely challenge those two for the league title. One of the things I like about the EPL (though not so evident this year) is that there always seem to be at least 4 or 5 teams that have a legitimate shot at the title. I think to see which league is the best, they should have challenge matches between the leagues; the top placed team from the two leagues play each other, the 2nd place teams play, etc., on down to the last place teams playing. The league that wins the majority of the 20 matches, wins the challenge. I think it would be great fun to see how they matched up.

  8. Ramon Creager, March 15, 2013 at 9:45 a.m.

    Yes indeed, this last round of UCL was fun. I couldn't understand Ferguson's actions. WTF does arguing with the 4th official do? When has it ever helped? Nani's red card was correct, even if it can be argued that he had no ill intent (that's not in the Laws). Ferguson needed to focus. He lost it. And as the manager goes so do the players. And Messi. He's just amazing. But we also have to recognize that Barca played with a fire that was missing in the last few games; as if the losses to AC Milan and RM had slapped it out of complacency. (This is an argument for a fairer distribution of income in La Liga. Competition makes you sharp.) Also, nice touch to put Villa as a true 9. Barca's brain trust need to understand that with a threat like Villa up top defenses cannot devote too many resources to just Messi.

  9. Ramon Creager, March 15, 2013 at 10:24 a.m.

    Kent James, La Liga is no way inferior to the EPL. Based on European competition results I'd place La Liga 1st, the Bundesliga 2nd, and the EPL or Serie A in 3d. La Liga's second tier of teams (2-4th place in UCL spots and 5-7th place in EL spots) routinely do well in the competitions they qualify for, almost always making the knockout rounds. The quality is also evident when you watch the games. I'd rather watch a mid-table La Liga match over an EPL counterpart. Unfortunately the Euro crisis and LFP mismanagement is bringing La Liga down. So stick around; the influx of good Spanish players and coaches into the EPL will continue, and maybe your dream of a superior EPL will be realized.

  10. Charles O'Cain, March 15, 2013 at 12:04 p.m.

    Yes, Barcelona and Messi played brilliantly in this match ... quite the opposite in comparison to their performance in the opposite fixture, and in comparison to their recent play versus Real Madrid. The "value" of a team, or league cannot be accurately of fairly assessed on the basis of a single match, or a single competition. Especially the UCL, where so much depends on the draw and on which minor league official crew is chosen, and to an undeniable element of luck. Very few would argue that the EPL was the best league (and certainly not Mr Gardner) based on Chelsea's victory last season. Nor should Man United's exit this year indicate that they are a weak team or that their manager is incompetent. Or that La Liga is in all ways superior to the EPL. Only 2 La Liga teams have ever won the UCL (3 German, 3 Italian, 5 British - 6 if Celtic is to be included). There is little doubt that the EPL is the most-watched, and the most-criticized by those who would rather watch something else (then why don't they?). I don't much listen to the "tiresome loudmouths" who say it is the best, nor to those who say it isn't. De gustibus non disputandum est.

  11. Albert Harris, March 15, 2013 at 2:07 p.m.

    Not often you hear the 1st periphrastic conjugation used in the comments section. My HS Latin teach would like you, Charles.

  12. Charles O'Cain, March 15, 2013 at 9:15 p.m.

    Only thing that got my HS Latin teacher more excited than conjugation was bump-net fishing for shad on the North Edisto. Had some tonight, and it was delicious. But I digress. Back to Latin football...

  13. Kent James, March 16, 2013 at 10:18 p.m.

    Charles, thanks for the data to support my supposition. Ramon, I'm not actually arguing that the EPL is superior to the Spanish league, my point was that it is more balanced so that there are more major fixtures between top teams, which I like. My suggestion to have league challenges (that could be done in one day, since everyone would only play their counterpart, although I guess a home and home series would be more in accordance to normal tournament play) would settle the question (at least for a year), and I think it would be a fascinating thing to watch.

  14. Ramon Creager, March 17, 2013 at 12:48 p.m.

    Celtic? Really? Wasn't that back when people actually spoke Latin?

  15. Charles O'Cain, March 18, 2013 at 8:24 a.m.

    1967 Celtic 2-1 Inter Milan in Lisbon. Fortunate draw, but Celtic won everything that year (League, League Cup, Scottish Cup, Glasgow Cup and European Cup). This was the year before Manchester United won their 1st European Cup with George Best and Bobby Charlton vs Benfica's Eusabio.

  16. Ramon Creager, March 18, 2013 at 10:01 a.m.

    Charles, I was alive then. ;( But seriously, Celtic is a perfect example of the troubles ailing European leagues. For years, the SPL was Celtic & Rangers & a cast of knee-huggers. Now there is just Celtic. This eventually hurts the competitiveness of even a great club. I'm afraid the same will happen in the EPL as now even Arsenal is unable to keep up with Big Money. Same in La Liga, whose second-tier teams are still competitive but will never win the title unless the revenue situation changes. Look at Valencia. Where would they be if they still had Villa, Silva, Mata, Alba? Competing for the top, that's where. But with Barca and RM taking the lions-share of TV revenues, who can keep that up? What will happen to RM and Barca is the same that happened to Celtic: as the league becomes less competitive, so will they. This is why their misguided efforts to keep all the TV revenue for themselves is ultimately self-destructive. The best thing the EPL could do for football is to strike a much more equitable revenue sharing deal than other leagues. Then it will shine, and other leagues may be inspired to follow suit.

  17. Charles O'Cain, March 18, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

    As was I, Ramon, and approaching the age of majority, though admittedly oblivious to the world of soccer for another several decades. I agree completely with your other points. Revenue (TV) sharing will only go so far towards ensuring some degree of parity, however, as long as the obscene wealth of the plutocrats is available to convey competitive advantages to certain selected teams. Financial Fair Play has a nice ring to it, but I seriously doubt it will be effectively implemented (maybe the year after universal health care is available).

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