THE BEAUTIFUL GAME 4: MESSI APPROACHES 30
Last Sunday, April 23, the latest “El Clasico” took place. The bare facts are that Barcelona won 3-2, keeping alive their hopes of beating arch rivals Real Madrid to the La Liga title. Messi scored two goals including a last gasp winner.
Yet the match was far more than that. Barcelona, which over the last decade has at times fielded arguably the greatest football teams ever seen, has been going through a difficult patch. The departure and decline of some of their major stars, Xavi, Pujol, Dani Alves, Iniesta, has weakened the squad, heavily dependent as it is on (the aging) Messi, who will be thirty in June. The replacements have not thus far come up to the mark, the weaknesses disguised by the separate acquisitions of Suarez and Neymar, the pair teaming up with Messi in the past few years to form a goal scoring machine -MSN – with at times mesmerising interaction between them.
About the defence the less said the better. A coach elsewhere a generation ago had stated, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that he didn’t mind if the opponents scored three, four or five goals as long as his team scored four, five or six in response. Fighting talk! And of course logically unanswerable. Plus, if Team A has the ball and is attacking, Team B cannot score. Guardiola’s success with Barcelona rested in no small part on the team’s attacking skills as well as its ability to retain possession, masking the limitations at the back. That plus the not inconsiderable part played by Lionel Messi, probably the finest player the world has ever seen. And post Guardiola Luis Enrique used the MSN trio to disguise further the team’s overall defensive shortcomings, even as Pujol departed. Defence was never the priority – adequate but not more than adequate.
This year, however, the squad has blown hot and cold. Time, weariness and increasingly effective opposition tactics have taken their toll. Massed defences proved their mettle most recently in Euro 2016 and even the poorest coach now knows that a tight defensive formation of two rows of four with some tall physical central defenders will stifle most attacks. There’s the additional issue of targeting of creative players – in Barcelona’s case Messi and to an extent Neymar. Football is a physical game, players are only human and some fouling is only to be expected.
Deliberate and cynical targeting of the most skilled players, however, is something else. I wrote last year before the Copa America and the 2016 Euros that it was time to protect Messi and other creative players, including an analysis which pointed up that fouls on Messi were mainly concentrated in matches where most was at stake. In the event little if anything was done by way of protection. Messi was fouled eight times in the final, which Argentina lost to Chile on penalties and six times in the quarter final against Venezuela . (Interestingly, in the semi-final, against the host nation USA, before a packed stadium in Houston, Messi, who starred in Argentina’s four-nil win, was fouled twice. Is there a moral here somewhere?)
This season Messi has played in forty three club matches, missing several through injury. In only six of these was he not fouled. In the other thirty six he was fouled just over one hundred times, and, as before, the lion’s share of these came in games where much was at stake, with thirty eight of these occurring in just seven games and fifty in ten. This quite apart from the tackles and lunges he rode or went inexplicably unpunished. Neymar, a more combative player, who has taken up some of the slack, was targeted even more – one hundred and seventy fouls in forty one matches. Not surprisingly this attrition, added to everything else, and compounded by injuries, led to some indifferent team performances in La Liga, which saw Barcelona yield the dominant position to Real so that coming up to last Sunday’s meeting Real were heavily favoured to take the title.
The best and worst of Barcelona this season were manifest in the Champions League Round of Sixteen, where a supine display in Paris against PSG saw them lose four –nil. None of the Trio “turned up” and the defence was woeful. Several weeks later in the return leg, Barcelona won an extraordinary match six – one. The match has been enthused over and parsed in the media many times. But several points need to be made. Firstly PSG imploded at the very end – three goals were scored in the final hectic seven minutes, two of them in time added on. Secondly, whereas Messi had a quiet game, Neymar played perhaps his best game ever for Barcelona. Messi appeared jaded, but inevitably, being Messi, PSG had to keep one eye on him, allowing Neymar free rein. And finally, there has been some criticism of the refereeing, in particular the penalty award which evened the scores up.
In the Quarter Final, an out-of-form Barcelona were pitted against in form Juventus. The first leg in Italy was won three-nil by the home team, though the victory was not as comprehensive as the score line suggests- Barcelona had chances and were unlucky not to score. Messi, fouled seven times in a surprise home defeat to Malaga several days previously, was fouled five times in Turin. The second leg a week later was played five days before the “Classico,” with interest focussing on whether Barcelona could repeat their feat against PSG.
It was never really on. With the sole exception of AC Milan’s collapse against Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League Final, Italian teams do not throw away three goal leads – and that was in the heat of a single match. The Juventus team had come to the Camp Nou to defend their lead and had the tactics and strategy to do so. It worked, Juventus giving what commentators called a masterclass in defending, marshalled by superb displays by their two central defenders, Bonucci and Chiellini. Despite constant pressure by the home team the game finished scoreless. As an aside, Messi emerged with a black eye after an unpunished upending by Pjanic, which earned Neymar a yellow card when he sought retribution on the Juventus player.
The football obituaries were not slow in coming, for Messi, for Barcelona. And for most people there was a sense that an end of an era was at hand. One Irish pundit observed that we should be grateful and remember their great games and the pleasure they had given in recent years. Others, this writer included, were loath to concede that the team was definitely over the hill. Neymar is twenty five and Messi surely has a year or two left. So there was considerable interest in last Sunday’s El Clasico. Barcelona, three points behind and having played a game more, simply had to win. Real meanwhile were cock-a-hoop after eliminating Bayern Munich in the Champions League thanks to a hat trick from Messi’s arch rival Ronaldo.
The game did not disappoint. The minute by minute newspaper accounts give some flavour of its excitement and quality while YouTube features the highlights. It proved a titanic struggle, hard, physical and played with a ferocious passion. There were chances and claims, misses and near misses for both sides. But most significantly Messi did not disappoint. It was as if the years had been shrugged off; the acceleration was back, the weaving runs and turns, the mesmeric dribbles, the deadly accurate shooting. This against arguably the best team in Europe and despite the best attentions of the Real defence.
It became clear at an early stage that Real’s main defensive tactic was to stop Messi. After eleven minutes Casemiro was booked for hacking him down. Within another ten minutes he was spitting blood after a flailing elbow from Marcelo caught him full in the mouth. He returned undaunted and continued running at the Real defence, cutting through it to equalise Real’s lead, control and finish perfect. Casemiro dumped him again before half time and was lucky not to be sent off. In the second half there were more runs, more lunges and fouls. Sergio Ramos was sent off with fifteen minutes left for a wild studs up attack which sent Messi flying. Five minutes later Kovacic was booked for again bringing Messi down. Then, as full time loomed, and a draw seemed inevitable, Messi appeared out of nowhere, found a gap where there was none and drove the ball into the net from the edge of the area.
The two goals against Real brought Messi’s total for Barcelona to five hundred. He added two more against Osasuna mid-week. He is highly likely to add some more before this season ends. Yet it will probably not be enough to secure the La Liga title for Barcelona. He will, however have an opportunity to win the Copa del Rey for Barcelona yet again as they face Alaves on May 27 in the Calderon. And, with luck and the proper measure of protection he could be around breaking records and delighting audiences for several years to come. But he needs that protection. The separate irony also is that, had Real played to their strengths and not sought to nobble Messi they might easily have got a result.