He needs no introduction when the issue is football. He ranks among the icons of the beautiful game, going by his achievements since he started kicking the ball around the streets as a boy in Argentina. He enjoys playing when marked, if he has a target to break. Lionel Messi, is the man for all seasons, soccer wise. He leaves a mark anywhere he plays.
Indeed, clubs’ fans pray when draws are made for competitive matches if their teams are drawn with Barcelona FC. And the word on every lip after such draws is ‘’Messi.’’ So, when the Round of 16 matches pitched Chelsea against Barca, the world looked forward to mouth-watering matches over the two legs in London and Nou Camp.
Messi doesn’t fail with challenges. He must have smiled, reading pre-match commentaries highlighting the fact that he had not scored against Chelsea in eight matches. He debunked that seeming fallacy when he finished off a square pass from Barca’s captain, Andres Iniesta into the net to tie the game a goal apiece.
Messi wasn’t the Man-of-the-Match. That accolade was for Chelsea’s midfielder Willian, who had to get medical attention twice before the end of the pulsating encounter. Messi’s side didn’t have the best chances. Chelsea had. Yet if Barcelona approaches the second leg as undoubted favourites, Messi that is responsible for that. Again, one chance, one goal. That is all he needs. And Messi got it because he, along with Barcelona’s immense forward drive, terrifies the opposition, defenders in possession in particular.
Messi isn’t known for rhetoric in the media before or after games. His feet do the talking, leaving many fans of opposing teams with broken hearts. Messi isn’t a spoilsport. He accepts defeats since he fights till the referee’s final whistle. Kudos should go to Chelsea’s manager Antonio Conte for his tactical plans which kept Messi quiet until he struck from a poor pass across Chelsea’s 18-metre box by Christensen in the 74th minute. Chelsea were unlucky as Willian’s shot hit the upright of the goalpost twice until he scored in the 61st minute from a curly kick. Willian received the ball outside of the box, paused, accelerated to the right then put it past a static Marc-Andre ter Stegen. At last, the warrior had his reward.
A tale of two warriors – Willain and Messi – with both players looking forward to the return leg at the Nou Camp in Barcelona. Soccer purists will give the game to Barca due to Messi’s records of swinging tight fixtures in his side’s favour at the Nou Camp. But Chelsea are no easy meat to chew in such winner-takes-all fixtures. Besides, Conte doesn’t park the bus in away fixtures. I see both sides scoring a goal each before the end of the first half. If Chelsea scores first, which isn’t unlikely, Barca will have a big problem on their hands.
Conte’s world class tactics anchored on not using a striker took care of the strong points of key players in Barcelona. This tactic should worry Barcelona’s coach, Ernesto Valverde given the way Chelsea’s players stuck to the system until that slip. Otherwise, Barca would have left Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night with their tails tucked in between their legs.
‘’Playing Alvaro Morata from the start, with him and Eden Hazard, without Willian or Pedro, would’ve lost our balance,’’ the Italian told the press in a post match session. ‘It would’ve been suicidal. We executed the game plan really well,’’ Fabregas said afterwards. ‘’We were compact, solid, played as a team and created lots of chances.’’
No good team plays blindfolded at this level, with coaches and players playing to the pre-match scripts. Those who think that the Barcelona tie between these two combatants is over had better read this instructive submissions by Chelsea’s highest goal-scorer this season, Eden Hazard, in a post-match conference: ‘’At least we won’t be able to think defensively in the second leg because if we think defensively over there we will be in a lot of danger.
‘’We will go there trying to win because we have to score and we will try for the perfect game as we did today, except for the small error that we made. That’s what made the difference because you’re up against Barcelona. Against other teams, perhaps you get away without letting in a goal. We played well. We had a plan to defend well. Perhaps we could have done more with the ball when we had it. It’s not over. We can still dream. Qualification is still possible,’’ the Belgian told reporters.
Fight to the death, if you ask me. Even with this can-do spirit from Chelsea stars, Hazard still feels that Messi’s class is one obstacle they have to contend with in the second leg tie. Hazard said on Tuesday night: ‘’We contained him well. When he’s outside the box he’s less dangerous than in it. He had one touch in the box today and he scored. That’s the difference he makes.’’
Is the game over for Chelsea in two weeks time? Barca’s striker Luis Suarez seems to have written off the Blues, stressing: “It was a beneficial goal for the second leg to have more space at the Camp Nou.”
“Our strength is being better at home; that’s why it was important to score. Now they have to try to score at the Camp Nou and we’ll have more space,” Suarez told Marca, a Spanish newspaper on Thursday.
So, why did Conte adopt the striker-less options against Barca? Is Hazard willing to play that role in the return leg? Hazard revealed after the 1-1 draw with Barcelona on Tuesday: ‘You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night and 15 of them were flying towards my head. That is not really playing to my qualities. I won some aerial duels against Gerard Pique, and that’s not bad.
‘’But if I had to choose, I prefer to play like I did in the last 10 minutes, which was out wide. But it’s the manager who has the final word. On the wing, I feel more comfortable. That’s my place. In games like that you have to be 100 per cent focused,’ he said. ‘One error, one goal. We should have scored more.
‘’We complicated it ourselves. A draw is a bad result. We won’t be able to think defensively in Barcelona. If we only think about defending, we’ll be in a lot of trouble. We will go to try to win. We have to win, we have to score,’’ Hazard said.
Indeed, Messi had the night in which he had only one chance at goal and buried the ball inside the net. Daily Mail’s writer Ian Ladyman summed up Messi’s talent and his contributions in Tuesday’s game thus: ‘’So we savour nights like this, nights when the greatest footballer of our generation cheats the passing of time on the back of skills, appetite and intuitive understanding that refuse to wane. Maybe we should not be surprised that Barcelona’s No 10 retains his youthful capacities.’’
‘’There is not a footballer alive who understands the rhythm of a game and the intricacies of his own game like he does. Unlike many, Messi does not seek the ball, he does not hunt the ball. Instead he finds pieces of solitude, waiting for the ball, the game, to come to him. His mind is always switched on but the body only follows when he has possession.
‘’This could be the secret of the enduring brilliance. Certainly Messi would make a mockery of modern running stats. If there was a similar measurement available for lurking then he would top the list,’’ Ladyman wrote on Thursday.
Should Super Eagles players surrender before Messi kicks the ball in the last fixture of Group D against Argentina? No way. We thrive best when the opposition is tough. Unlike at Barcelona, Messi will have to take charge since his Argentine mates are not as talented as his peers at Barcelona. Surely, a tree cannot make the forest. Eagles will mark Messi. They will cut off supply to him. He dare not wait for the ball like he does at Barcelona. Otherwise, what happened in Russia last year would be a child’s play.
Eagles’ manager Gernot Rohr must instruct his players not to lose sight of Messi anytime during the game. Just when you think you have Messi inside your cage, he bolts out to deliver the devastating blow that swings the game in his side’s (club, and country’s) favour.
Certainly, our boys and their coaches watched the first game on Tuesday; they should watch the return leg and decide how best to mark out Messi. Did I hear you say bring on Argentina and Messi? No hurry, it will soon be World Cup time.