James Lawton: Star turn lives to fight another day
Thursday 07 May 2009
There were times when Lionel Messi, world player of the year-elect, had never looked so cornered, never so far from the centre of the football universe that has been increasingly his home in this season of brilliance and enchantment.
It was though he had taken a wrong turning in the immense shadow created by Cristiano Ronaldo in his destruction of Arsenal 24 hours earlier.
But then if Messi was less than we have to come to expect genius is surely sometimes allowed to spend some time in the shadows, and on this occasion, when the heavens fell in on Chelsea, when Didier Drogba for the second time in two seasons lost his head in the climactic stages of a Champions League campaign, Messi was one of the survivors.
When Michael Essien, an immense figure all night lost the ball on the edge of the box, Messi played the ball coolly to Andres Iniesta, drove Barça into the final – an act of extreme cruelty if you were considering simply some of the decisions of Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo and the weight of Chelsea's powerfully hewn opportunities. But Messi, and some aficionados of the game will always be grateful, had been given back the chance to rule a continent – if not the world – in Rome in the European Cup final later this month.
Last night he was obliged to produce something at least as spectacular as Ronaldo at the Emirates on Tuesday night, but there were times when the man who was supposed to underline his superb credentials resembled not so much a footballer of supreme destiny but the orphan of an extremely hard fate.
It was, maybe, to be just another victim of the football machine that has been re-shaped so quickly by Chelsea's peerless trouble-shooter of a coach, Guus Hiddink.
Barça's dismantling of Real Madrid might have been the talk of European football coming into last night's action, but here they stepped from fantasy to a reality that was already being imposed with bone-jarring ferocity before Essien swept Chelsea into a ninth minute lead with a left-footed drive that smacked against the underside of Victor Valdes' cross-bar and rolled across the line.
Hiddink has not brought Stamford Bridge the elegant football that has become the trademark of his young Barça rival Josep Guardiola – and the most cherished ambition of owner Roman Abramovich – but there was the strongest suspicion that what he put on the table last night might just be the recipe for the oligarch's first taste of European mastery.
United put Arsenal to the sword and Ronaldo produced one of the most devastating performances of his career 24 hours earlier but what we were seeing from Chelsea, as Messi raided desperately on the edges of the blue juggernaut, were long passages of pressure which reduced the beautiful team to one of almost winsome frailty.
Messi suffered most when Chelsea were at one peak of their prodigious power early in the second half. He redoubled his efforts but even the perfect balance and the silky touch of his game seemed nothing against the sheer weight of Essien's presence and the intelligent probing of Frank Lampard and, of course, there was always Didier Drogba.
As Messi was increasingly threatened with exclusion from the heart of the game, as Drogba brought a touch of fear to the Barça defence each time he took hold of the ball, or ran into its path, it was odd to the point of bizarre that the man from the Ivory Coast had recently been numbered among Chelsea's least committed players.
Here was another stunning example of Hiddink's power to re-fashion the ambition and the spirit of individual players, not to mention entire football nations. When Drogba carried an injury off the field with less than 20 minutes to go, Barça could hardly conceal their relief – and could hardly guess that a night which had been marked by such conviction would degenerate into another example of Drogba's ability to cast gloom over his own brilliance.
However with a goal to retrieve, and the tank traps of the Chelsea defence as merciless as ever, the respite was savagely brief.
When Barça were reduced to 10 men with the harsh dismissal of Eric Abidal, they no doubt believed they had suffered a full quota of discouragement, but it simply wasn't so. When Iniesta, who with Xavi Hernandez and Messi had fought with such little encouragement, at one point was shoved off the ball by Essien he must have believed he had reach the low point of his futility.
Messi put his hands on his hips and fretted. It was, after all, to be a night of supreme achievement but here he was locked in the extraordinary if not always sweetly executed power of Chelsea. He wriggled, he played some passes of beautiful touch, but there was never a break, never a chink in blue armour. It was not hard to grasp the depth of his impending despair. All season, after all, he had been the prince of the game, an heir apparent to Ronaldo as the most compelling football talent on earth. But as the minutes ticked by the 21-year-old already anointed by Diego Maradona became immersed in what threatened to be the greatest frustration of his career.
He was sent into the box by Xavi, but he could find no way through the thickets of Chelsea resistance. It was though Chelsea had denied him all that on which he thrives, space, a glint of encouragement, even a little oxygen.
But then Messi joined in a moment that took away the ground from Chelsea. It is hard to imagine Manchester United, and still less Cristiano Ronaldo, were overwhelmed, but then in Rome in a few weeks time there is a new challenge for the little man who may still inherit the football world. Next time, who knows, he might just take it.
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