Barcelona 1 Manchester City 0: Pep Guardiola returns to witness genius Lionel Messi at work

COMMENT: The Argentinian was in sublime form in the Nou Camp

Pete Jenson
Wednesday 18 March 2015 23:23 GMT
(Getty Images)

Anyone have any idea what position Leo Messi was playing in the first half last night? No? Manchester City neither. The idea that managers of truly great players just pick a formation with 10 men and then turn to the genius and say: “And you, whatever you want to do and wherever you want to do it,” must surely now apply to Luis Enrique at Barcelona.

The days of Messi the wide forward making diagonal runs towards goal were brought to an end by the revered Pep Guardiola, who shifted him to a deep-lying central striker position, giving birth to the ‘false nine’. What was he here? A false nine? A false seven? Eight? Ten?

He now has more freedom than ever to move around the pitch and he dragged Manchester City around the Nou Camp as if he had them all on strings.

When the goal came it seemed the entire City team had been dragged towards the Argentine, and that included their right-back, Bacary Sagna, who left Ivan Rakitic completely unmarked at the back post for Messi to find with a long diagonal pass.

It was a double assist because it was Messi’s ball that put him in on goal and it was Messi with that power to draw so many players out of position and create the space.

Mauel Pellegrini, the City manager, wants a ‘crack’ player in a blue shirt, not just because ‘cracks’ create and score goals but also because they obsess the opposition, they occupy two rivals instead of one, they lift a team.

City will never get Messi but they are crying out for someone who does something remotely similar. The Premier League champions looked terribly ordinary at times and none more so than when Fernandinho and Messi were caught in the same frame.

The first of Messi’s two first-half nutmegs left the Manchester City midfielder floundering. He did the same to James Milner just before the break. Messi moved wherever it pleased him, but he found the most space in front of the City back four, where Txiki Begiristain’s recruitment policy has failed to fill a hole that is so exposed in the Champions League. And as if to underline the gulf that still exists between these clubs, while Manchester City do not have a holding midfielder worthy of this level, Barcelona have two.

They were without Sergio Busquets but Javier Mascherano took his position and did the job just as well. Arguably, and on the basis of his performances at the World Cup, Mascherano is the better of the two in the position anyway but plays in the centre of defence because, with the option of Busquets, why not?

The only way City could stop Messi was by fouling him
The only way City could stop Messi was by fouling him (Getty Images)

Guardiola, the former Barcleona coach who introduced Busquets to the first team, watched the game with his family in the throng of the 99,000. He might yet be the answer for City in a year and a half’s time if he can be persuaded by Begiristain, his former sporting director at Barça, to walk away from Bayern Munich at the end of the three-year contract he signed in 2013.

He would have been more concerned at Barcelona’s quality than City’s shortcomings. Bayern embarrassed Barcelona in the Champions League two seasons ago but, on this evidence, that will not happen this year if the are brought together again in the draw tomorrow.

One of the most cruel things about Manchester City being drawn against Barça in the last-16 for the second year running was that if the game had been played the day after the draw was made, City might even have started as favourites, such was Barcelona’s lack of cohesion under Luis Enrique.

They continued to struggle towards the end of the year and lost the opening game of 2015 to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad, but things have changed so much since then. The coach had upset the squad by telling Neymar, Messi and Dani Alves they could come back late from the mid-season break, only to leave them on the bench for that opening game of the year.

A training-ground row between Messi and Luis Enrique was leaked to the media, denied, and then confirmed inadvertently by French defender Jeremy Mathieu.

But with the balance of power shifting from the coach to his players, and those players responding with better performances, Barcelona have been beaten only by Malaga in 2015. Messi has led the renaissance.

Towards the end of last year he slipped 12 goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to finish top scorer in La Liga. It’s a race that always appears to interest Ronaldo more than Messi. Inside three months, the Argentine has moved two goals clear of the Real Madrid striker ahead of their meeting on Sunday in the Clasico.

Luis Enrique was asked once about what made Messi stand out from the rest and he replied that, in some respects, the Argentine did nothing that other players did not also do. The difference was that other players did it on the playground against kids who were far inferior to them, or in youth academies against youngsters with less talent, or in training as senior professionals against the reserve centre-back.

Messi, in contrast, does it against internationals in big games. The nutmegs against Fernandinho and Milner were a reminder of that. As irrepressible as ever, he could lead Barcelona all the way this year. And Guardiola will have boarded his plane back to Munich well aware of it.

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