James Lawton: The Guardiola backlash begins as Messi misfires

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The Independent Football

Barcelona can be a haunting city at the best of times and certainly yesterday it was not a place to linger in any of its extravagantly ornate cemeteries. You might just have encountered the ghosts of Lionel Messi and Josep Guardiola, the men whose reputations were most damaged when Jose Mourinho turned off the lights at the Nou Camp stadium.

For the moment it is Guardiola who is guaranteed the most severe flak.

The barrage has already started for the young coach, whose luminous vision of how the game should be played was so obscured by the masterpiece of stifling cynicism conjured by Mourinho and his Internazionale side on their way to the Champions League final in Madrid.

Not since they started knocking down the statues of General Francisco Franco has Spain seen so much instant and savage revisionism.

The author of Barcelona's brilliant last season, when they gathered up the Champions League, La Liga and the Spanish cup in an effusion of often exquisite football, is adjudged to have suffered a tactical rout at the hands of the Special One. Precocious triumph is supplanted by charges of strategic naivety.

His faith in the ability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rather than, say, the speedy David Villa, seamlessly to replace the troublesome Samuel Eto'o, is being written off as a £50m-plus catastrophe. His £20m investment in the underwhelming Ukraine central defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy is also being derided.

As he fights to hold his nerve in a tight La Liga finish with Real Madrid, Guardiola may reflect that it is the way of the world when expectations run too far ahead of achievement. He may also be comforted by the fact that there are still some who recognise that attempting to light up the entire football world on a more or less permanent basis does not come without heavy risk – and who would still elect to be associated with the football that failed on Wednesday night than the model which brought Mourinho his triumph in the place where he was once so severely discounted.

If you really wanted to go down protesting with the team who elected themselves as the moral guardians of the way the game should be played, you might also say that a little bit more might have been demanded of the Special One if Inter's third goal in Milan last week had been ruled out because it was palpably offside – and that Barcelona had a right to make anguished protests when what appeared to be their second goal on Wednesday was quashed because of Yaya Touré's alleged handball when the ball was driven at him from point-blank range.

But then if there is purist regret for Guardiola's plight, it can only be compounded in the case of his most talented player. This is despite the fact that some are also blaming Guardiola for Messi's inability to inflict himself on the blanket of defence thrown down by Mourinho on Wednesday. When Ibrahimovic was out of the side, Messi was unplayable, but since the Sweden international's return Messi no longer looks like the player who invited serious comparison with the greatest we have ever seen. The argument is that Ibrahimovic takes up the space that Messi, operating just behind the striker, had been making his launching pad for football immortality.

It is a charge of murderous weight. Losing to fiercely drilled opponents motivated by a man with a genius for getting into the heads of both his own team and his opponents' is one indictment. But another that says you have done nothing but shackle the world's best player represents a rather more serious plunge from the mountain top.

Guardiola's challenge is plain enough. He has to reanimate his team, draw from them both the beauty and the conviction of their game when it is operating at its best.

For Messi there is the endless challenge facing players who are burdened with the possibility that they might be the best in the world. He has to prove that like Pele, Diego Maradona and the former master of the Nou Camp, Johan Cruyff – for these are the kind of names with which he has been bracketed in recent months – he can perform on the most demanding of occasions.

Against Manchester United in the Champions League final last spring he was equal to the task in Rome's Olympic Stadium, but then he was facing a United side who became progressively unrecognisable in their lack of competitive force. Certainly, he ravaged Arsenal a few weeks ago, but then no team with pretensions of greatness can have suffered more than Arsène Wenger's in the fallout from Mourinho's tactical coup.

Most worrying for those who believe that the little man indeed has the talent to enter the pantheon of great players is that at times he seems powerless to break a pattern imposed by the most obdurate and organised of opponents. Against Inter he never looked less than a highly accomplished player, one gifted with wonderful balance and skill, but both in Milan and at home he was never able to provide a decisive cutting edge. This was made particularly poignant by the fact that on one occasion this week he left two defenders rooted to the ground as he draw a superb save from goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

It was a similar story in the toughest encounter Barcelona had faced for a year before going into the tie with Inter. This, of course, was the second-leg semi-final at Stamford Bridge last May, when Chelsea were so hindered by an incompetent referee. Then, too, Messi could not inflict himself significantly on the action.

What was missing in Milan and the Nou Camp and at Stamford Bridge was, the interim verdict has to be, that dimension which so regularly marked the work of players like Pele and Cruyff, George Best and Maradona. It was the ability the rise above any restraint, the capacity suddenly to announce that whatever you tried to do, they were beyond it, operating in their own space, their own genius.

Barcelona are still a wonderful team and Messi remains a player of the highest quality. Their problem is that they have invited us to judge them only by the highest standards. It is both their achievement and their curse, which means that we can only hope they are able to whistle away from the graveyard.

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