James Lawton: Time has come for mesmerising Messi to prove he is in Maradona's league
"For every three shots, Messi scores once – this amounts to serial assassination"
Tuesday 28 April 2009
There are some very good reasons why we should be cautious about the certainty already forming in some minds that this year's Champions League final will be less of a contest and more a coronation – that of the Little Caesar of world football, Lionel Messi, as the world's greatest player and his Barcelona as its most beautiful team.
Still, it is also surely true that only the most fervent supporters of Chelsea, who may well subject the plan to its most serious examination at the Nou Camp tonight, Arsenal and Manchester United, and possibly the publicity department of the Premier League, are not at least a little caught up in the idea that Messi will be crowned beside the Tiber, as Cristiano Ronaldo was, more or less, on the banks of the Moscow River at the same time last year.
There is, after all, nothing more intoxicating than the idea of a player who is not only the best but also profoundly aware not only of the scale of his talent but also the responsibility it brings. Already, Messi is being spoken of as a player of the ages, someone to be bracketed alongside his compatriots Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano, and already we have seen some compelling reasons why this is so.
Messi is sublime on the run, he can find space and gaps not apparent to the naked eye, and if he indeed fulfils the promise of a season in which his talent has sometimes acquired the depth and the range of an epic sporting poem, football in all the corners of its existence will benefit.
Why? Because in an age when so many of the upper reaches of football stardom are seen to be deluged in celebrity and ostentatious wealth, when someone as blessed as Ronaldo can sometimes make playing for one of the greatest clubs in the world, one which has delivered him to the peaks of the game, seem not so much a gift as a chore.
Messi is plainly a different animal. He has none of the trappings of the megarich – even after his anointing by Maradona, and the present of his number 10 shirt in the Argentine team, the only destiny he seems to embrace is the one that cries for consistent performance. Barcelona paid for the growth hormone treatment that was so vital to his development in the game, and their reward is, so far at least, the kind of loyalty that in so much of football cannot be enforced even by the most elaborate and generous of contracts.
Already, too, Messi has commanded the kind of praise that would normally be prised out of someone like, say Fabio Capello, only on the rack. England's stern Il Capo recently told the Spain-based English writer John Carlin, "Ronaldo and Messi are both great players, but nobody in the world has the talent that Messi has. He does things that others don't even think about. Every era has its superstar, like Pele or Maradona, and Messi can be the superstar of the next decade."
Pele and Maradona? It is an incredible push because Pele and Maradona not only won World Cups, they also showed the most profound grasp of the fundamentals of the game. They saw everything and did everything.
At 21, can Messi claim such a dimension along with the stunning intricacy and balance of his attacking forays, qualities which Old Trafford saw vividly enough in the Champions League semi-finals last year? Messi produced a mesmerising performance, but then he did not produce the killer stroke that would have denied Ronaldo, outplayed utterly on the night, his crowning glory in Moscow.
For the kind of performance that would put him into serious contention with the greatest of players, Messi of course has to be dominant in his ability to transform his team, as Zinedine Zidane did in World Cups and European Cups, and there is no doubt such a challenge looms in the Nou Camp tonight.
Will Barça's defence stand up to the current ferocity of a Didier Drogba nurtured so effectively by Guus Hiddink? Barcelona's brilliant attacking coach Pep Guardiola has exploited the superb midfield axis of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta; he has unchained Thierry Henry and coaxed improved performance out of Samuel Eto'o. But can he persuade the veteran, and some say, over-rated defensive leader Carles Puyol that Drogba is not a suitable case for bone-deep dread?
Messi is plainly utterly crucial to Barcelona's hopes, and not least in the remarkable statistic that now accompanies his every appearance: it says that for every three shots he takes on goal, Messi scores once. In the arithmetic of football this amounts to serial assassination.
However, tonight Messi must establish the aura of the great player, the kind Di Stefano conveyed to the young Bobby Charlton in another semi-final of the European Cup, in the Bernabeu more than 50 years ago. Charlton was the travelling reserve and was sent to the stands at the kick-off. There, he was entranced long after the result of the game had been decided in Real Madrid's favour.
The young Charlton reported, "As soon as I saw him make his first few touches of the ball, I thought 'who is this man? He takes the ball from the goalkeeper, he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball, you can see his influence on everything that is happening.' Whenever Di Stefano got into any kind of decent position in midfield, it was the signal for the great winger Gento to fly. He would go at a 100 miles an hour and Di Stefano would send the ball into his path, unerringly. I had never seen such a complete footballer. In later years I would know Pele as an opponent and a friend and I learned about his greatness, but that first impact of Di Stefano crossed all boundaries. It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him."
Such is at least some of the expectation which Lionel Messi seeks to justify tonight. If if he does it, we better pack a few laurel leaves for the trip to Rome.
Hamilton finds himself stuck in a chicane of his own making
Jenson Button's latest Formula One triumph is another tribute to his resolution in the face of all those past disappointments – and the keeping of his nerve.
It also puts into some kind of perspective the so far not tremendously successful attempts of Lewis Hamilton to put into some philosophical perspective his new situation.
The reigning champion drove splendidly in Bahrain for fourth place in his competitively diminished McLaren, but his handling was much less sure when he was asked, for the benefit of a vast television audience, whether he would honour his five-year contract with the currently bedraggled team. Yes, he would, he said after completing the conversational equivalent of a chicane – and bemoaning the fact that he had found himself in the middle of controversy and "politics". Most of all, we were told, he would do it for the fans.
No doubt the fans will be suitably grateful. However, some of them may be reflecting on how far we have come since James Hunt said, more than 30 years ago, that a driver's contribution to an F1 team's success amounted to not much more than 10 per cent.
Roll out video replays, please
It may well be that Manchester United would have conjured that first vital goal from somewhere sooner or later, indeed when you looked at the power and coherence of their second-half performance against Spurs you have to say it was the likelihood. However, it is surely troubling that the goal that opened the floodgates – and may well have settled the Premier League title race – shouldn't have happened.
When Heurelho Gomes dived at the feet of Michael Carrick he achieved his objective. He flicked the ball away. He made a save. This would have been much more evident to the referee, Howard Webb, who is said to be our best, had he been a little closer to the action – or, can we please say again – if he had been able to resolve his doubts by checking with a third official who had video replays at his disposal.
The tiresome refusal to use the technology of television, which is allowed to dissect endlessly every piece of action for commercial purposes, is justified by some because it saves time. How much time? Not the beginnings of a fraction of the nine months it takes to settle a league title, ideally on something more than the guess of a referee, however lauded he may be.
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