Pete Jenson: Messi forced into the margins
Argentine prodigy is cast adrift in Chelsea's sea of yellow shirts on night he hoped to underline world-class talent
Wednesday 29 April 2009
In the end there was no special plan to stop Leo Messi. And yet there was no special performance from the unofficial best player in the world.
It was a strange night for the Barcelona forward who needs a Champions League final in which finally to dethrone Cristiano Ronaldo. All the talk had been of the little Argentine and how he was set to light up the first leg of this semi-final.
With Ashley Cole unavailable, the possibility of assigning Michael Essien to Messi-watch was mooted – asking the midfield destroyer to nullify the Barça No 10 as he had Liverpool's Steven Gerrard in the quarter-finals.
A rumour that Florent Malouda would switch to left-back circulated before kick-off – perhaps his pace would be used to stop the Argentine. Or maybe Michael Essien would be switched to the left side of midfield to stop Messi's partner in crime Dani Alves pouring forward and offering support. In the end the anti-Messi treatment was no more complicated than playing Jose Bosingwa at left-back. And it worked.
The tournament's top scorer never touched the ball in the opening moments and when he got his first touch it ran away from him. He got past Bosingwa on four minutes but was brought down by the recovering full-back. He drew another foul from the Portuguese on nine minutes but got up to take the free-kick and blazed it high and wide. And so the tone was set for a frustrating night.
Barcelona's top scorer in all competitions with 34 goals was forced deeper and deeper to look for the ball, often with Alves ahead as Chelsea sat back and allowed Barcelona to come on to them. Messi has been one-third of a forward line that this season has hit 90 goals – outscoring Chelsea's entire squad – but there was no way of parting the yellow sea in front of him last night.
There was plenty of wandering but none of those characteristic slalom runs that have sliced open so many La Liga defences this season. But he was not alone as Barça's front three failed to crack Chelsea.
Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o were both taken off in the second half and substitute Bojan Krkic missed a fine late chance, as Chelsea did what so few teams have managed this year.
Barcelona have played 54 times this season and only three times have they failed to score. This year it has happened only once. But the team who have hit 140 goals were left drawing the same blank as one year ago when Manchester United kept them out at the Nou Camp and then finished them off at Old Trafford.
And so for all the talk of Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o in the end the man of the moment was the last name on the list of possible heroes – Victor Valdes. His brilliant double save in the closing stages of the first period kept Barcelona in this tie. A fine reaction stop from a man who has justifiably been seen as Barça's weakest link this season. He has been badly at fault in all of the team's defeats. But for his intervention though, Barça would be facing an even steeper climb next Wednesday. They will start the second leg without both central defenders Rafa Marquez and Carlos Puyol. Marquez is likely to be out for the rest of the season with knee ligament damage and Puyol will miss the game after being booked last night.
Coach Pep Guardiola will be forced to use Uruguayan Martin Caceres, who has barely featured this season in the league, next to Gerard Pique.
Barcelona fans had asked for a repeat of the Bayern Munich mauling that they witnessed in the quarter-finals. The Nou Camp was as its loudest and brightest but Chelsea dulled it with a defensive masterclass.
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