Thursday, February 23, 2006

Messi pitch? Not for this craftsmen

Champions League round of 16, Chelsea 1 v Barcelona 2

While there was much made about the state of the Stamford Bridge pitch and how difficult it would be to play on in the build up to this morning’s (Australian time) Champions League round of 16 clash, Barcelona’s dynamic young Argentine Lionel Messi made a mockery of this, turning on a superb individual performance against Chelsea to help give the visitors a decisive 2-1 lead going into the second leg at the Nou Camp in a fortnight.

His performance, along with that of his team-mate Ronaldinho proved that the truly classy footballers can play on any pitch, regardless of its condition.

How wonderful it was to see the world’s premier club competition back on our screens after the European winter break, providing the opportunity to marvel at the unique talents of these two craftsmen.

While we already know a great deal about the world’s current number one, Ronaldinho, less was known about the sublimely gifted 18 year old Messi, but here he terrorised Chelsea’s left side, getting the better of all three opponents placed on him throughout the game.

He was involved in perhaps the most pivotal moment of the game, the sending off of Chelsea left back Asier Del Horno shortly before the break. While the challenge itself was probably worthy of only a yellow card, it was reckless and looked worse in real time than it did on replays.

Del Horno can have no real complaints however as he was lucky to escape yellow card a short time earlier when his left foot went through Messi’s thigh.

These challenges were born largely from Messi’s ability to put Del Horno under pressure with his wonderful ball control, electric pace off the mark and great link-up play, forcing the Spanish defender to panic.

Jose Mourinho immediately introduced Geremi to right back, shifting Paulo Ferreira onto Messi, but he wasn’t sparred, with Messi getting in behind him on a number of occasions. If he wasn’t beating him on the outside, he was ducking back onto his favoured left foot and attempting to shoot or create something. On one particular occasion he skipped inside Ferreira, only to see his delicate shot come off the woodwork. Petr Cech could only watch and admire. This was the work of a kid who probably goes to sleep with the ball at his feet.

If that’s the case with Messi, than Ronaldinho probably goes everywhere with the ball at his feet, such is his love affair with it.

It would be a tragedy if this Brazilian with a big smile never won the ‘trophy with big ears’, as the Champions League prize is often nicknamed. Already a World Cup winner and twice world footballer of the year, he is clearly determined to add this prize to his resume.

As for Messi, the appetite wets at the prospect of seeing him illuminate the World Cup in June.

The same could be said about seeing Barcelona in the later stages of this year’s Champions League, particularly if they continue to play football of this magnitude.

The big question going into this tie was how its defence would cope. After all, this was its Achilles heel last season. While its attacking couldn’t be faulted, its propensity to leak goals brought about its eventual down-fall.

But the move by Frank Rijkaard of Mexican tough man Rafael Marquez from central midfield to central defence this season has really stiffened things up at the back. Last season Carles Puyol was basically left on his own to deal with Chelsea’s attack, but now, with Edmilson in central midfield, Marquez has become a crucial figure at the back.

He even bobbed up on the edge of the box to tee up Barcelona’s winner with a delightful first time left foot cross to Samuel Eto’o, wonderful technique for a predominantly right foot player.

The other pivotal move came immediately after Chelsea had opened the scoring after profiting from some uncertainty between Thiago Motta and goalkeeper Victor Valdez from a Frank Lampard free kick.

Rijkaard immediately introduced Henrik Larsson up front, shifting Eto’o to the left and giving Ronaldinho a free role to rove. With midfielder Motta replaced, Barca had gone from a 4-3-3, where Eto’o and Ronaldinho had been kept under wrap, to a 4-2-4, and Chelsea, already a man down, were powerless to stop the inevitable onslaught.

Ronaldinho drifted over to Messi’s right to give Chelsea a double-dose of magic and some of his work in holding the ball against some fierce challenges had to be seen. Almost inevitably, he played a crucial role in both Barca goals, providing the wicked free kick for the equaliser and then penetrating Chelsea’s midfield with a superb counter-attack to set up the second. Easy on the eye.

Chelsea was hanging on, the only miracle being that they didn’t concede more, for which they have some desperate defending from John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho to thank.

It really could and should have been tie over, but Chelsea is still in with a sniff. The good sign for Barcelona is that they defended much better than in previous seasons. While right back Presas Oleguer was at times shaky, they have a much more solid look about them, and an attack that should be too classy not to score at least once at the Nou Camp, meaning Chelsea would need two to take it extra time. Even for Mourinho that might be too tough an ask.


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