James Lawton: Messi's artistry brings beauty following outbreak of ugliness

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Sir Peter O'Sullevan scarcely needed to be told that the going was officially heavy when he took his seat here last night. Nor did the great caller of horses require any assistance in identifying the thoroughbred with the most mesmerising turn of hoof.

It was Lionel Messi, the Argentinian prodigy who brought such convulsions to the psyche of Asier Del Horno that the Chelsea full- back's dismissal after just 37 minutes might have been seen as not so much a punishment as a mercy.

The rest of us could only mourn the fact that a Champions' League tie with the potential for so much beauty, of both technique and authentic team spirit, should continue to be besieged by so unrelenting ugliness.

Chelsea, naturally, were outraged when del Horno went and certainly the pre-match remarks of Frank Rij- kaard about him being a bosum friend of the Norwegian referee, Terje Hauge, might suddenly have been seen by some in a more sinister light than that of a small satire on last season's Anders Frisk controversy. But that was only for so long as it took to analyse properly the action that finished with Chelsea down to 10 men and their coach, Jose Mourinho, facing the biggest test so far of his "Special One" status.

Messi was in fact fouled twice by Del Horno, first unsuccessfully at around knee height when he launched a withering run, then with a full body check after he had inflicted a cheeky nutmeg on Arjen Robben.

Those who argued that Del Horno's chief crime was to be caught clumsily in a one-man wave of brilliance had only a small point. Messi had been systematically clattered in a way that, anyway, would have warranted two yellow cards.

Soon enough the issue was caught up in the wider drama of Barcelona's effort to respond to the huge in-built spirit of Mourinho's team which brought them the lead in the 58th minute, when Barcelona's Thiago Motta and goalkeeper Victor Valdes got themselves in a horrible tangle over Frank Lampard's free-kick.

Barça's reaction was so exhilarating we might indeed have been watching a great classic winner gliding over a sea of mud. Goals came from a Ronaldinho free-kick which John Terry could only head into his own net and a commanding header from Samuel Eto'o. But these were just the routine products of a sudden, vast ascendancy, and at the heart of it was the man who inflicted all that early devastation to Chelsea's composure.

In one passage the 18-year-old was just about unplayable. Once he glided through the left side of Chelsea's cover as it if did not exist. Then, exquisitely, he flighted the ball against the crossbar. That would have carried more than the value of a single goal. It would have announced a division of class which even Mourinho's powers of motivation, and controversy, would surely have found insurmountable in the Nou Camp on 7 March.

You could only pay tribute to the honesty which Mourinho has driven into his team. Reduced to 10 men, outplayed quite exquisitely at times, they still refused to accept the weight of Barcelona's advantage in manpower and talent.

If Chelsea are doomed to ejection again from the Champions' League there was, after all, a certain poetic justice in the fact the latest swordstroke has almost certainly been applied by Barcelona.

Here last season Barça perished on the most dubious of goals, when Ricardo Carvalho indisputably fouled the Spanish goalkeeper, and in a welter of dispute which seriously attacked the spirit of the game.

Now there was a degree of vindication in that from Barcelona, the purveyors of superior football in their own land and in the trenches of the European game, had come the great emphasis on beautiful football.

Ronaldinho was slow to come onto his game but in the end he, too, was imperious, and though Robben, recovering from the shock of that Messi move, made some stunning assaults on the Barcelona goal, and Chelsea reminded us of the depth of their collective will, there was no question about the man who occupied the centre of an extremely dramatic stage. The impact of Messi was sustained and extraordinary. He is ranked alongside Wayne Rooney as one of the great talents of the world game and certainly they both carry huge expectations to the World Cup. These hopes, however, do not exceed the kind of gifts that can be brought to the challenge.

Messi's supreme quality is an ability to cover the ground with bewildering surges of intricate pace. The great tribute to George Best was that he bestowed twisted blood on hard-pressed defenders. The same effect was experienced by the agonised left flank of Chelsea's defence. One of them was sent to the dressing-room. The rest of them could have only have felt profound envy.