The hole in Lionel Messi's game
Background photo: Markus Unger, CC BY 2.0
First, let me apologise to Erik ten Hag. I intended to write about the wonderful work he’s doing at Ajax today but Barcelona interfered. He’ll understand. Frenkie de Jong remains his player only until June and possibly Matthijs de Ligt as well.
Second, let me make a simple statement to avoid claims of sour grapes from Cules and neutrals. Barcelona deserved to win the Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Old Trafford. They were better than Manchester United in virtually every department. Also, please understand ‘virtually’ is only employed because two fine saves from David de Gea prevented the score from being a more accurate depiction of the visitors’ dominance while Marc-Andre ter Stegen used the 90 minutes at the other end to catch up on his reading. Every thought expressed hereafter regarding Barca is offered in admiration.
United had their moments. Scott McTominay especially rose to the occasion. He harried Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho with a zeal akin to William Wallace getting after Edward the Longshanks. The only thing he didn’t do was raise his kilt to show the pair his arse. Even so, he deserved man of the match honours for the home side.
Chris Smalling was arguably more aggressive, stepping up to win 50-50s after the Red Devils high press forced Ter Stegen to begin making long clearances rather than play out from the back. The centre-half bloodied Messi’s nose with an errant backhand when stepping in front of the maestro midway through the first half. On the negative side, he was lucky Luis Suarez’s earlier header across goal glanced off Luke Shaw’s shoulder and in for the game’s only goal. Had it not, Smalling was too late on the far post to prevent the as yet unsullied Argentine from tapping in the ball.
The accidental makeover also left the five-time Ballon d’Or winner with a shiner on his left eye. If anything, it made Leo look more like long-time Real Madrid nemesis Sergio Ramos than those soft drink ads that used CGI to shave his beard. Perhaps the faint resemblance is why he grew it in the first place.
Not long after he returned to the pitch, Messi had the opportunity to back into another 50-50 with Ashley Young on the flank. At the last moment, he thought better.
The entire incident illustrates the one element missing from the dynamic No.10's game. For all his skill and despite the target it paints on his back [and front], he has absolutely no influence over match officials. Other prolific superstars left battered and bleeding after incidental contact win free kicks and a yellow cards as compensation. Referee Gianluca Rocchi offered only a shrug before feigning a sincere inquiry after his health and perfunctorily requesting he and the physios leave the pitch forthwith.
It’s a mystery why opponents can take liberties with the best player in the world. There are three other stars in Ernesto Valverde’s squad who wrap match officials around their fingers. Arturo Vidal is new to the squad, but you’d think Sergio Busquets and especially Luis Suarez would long ago have taken aside the player who enriched their competitive lives beyond imagination and offered a few pointers to keep the golden eggs coming. Surely, they’ve learned a trick or two from watching their talisman weave his magic. Where is the gratitude?
The trio are magicians who produce bookings from thin air. David Copperfield once made an elephant disappear, drawing squeals of glee and thunderous applause from an audience who fully understood the pachyderm, in fact, had not disappeared, rather their attention had been diverted. They could witness the illusion a hundred times and still love Copperfield for deceiving them. Suarez, Busquets and Vidal seem to have the same effect on officials. It’s not as though their reputation doesn’t precede them. Busquets’ infamous peekaboo incident from the 2010 Champions League semifinal still proliferates Youtube and Twitter memes. Suarez’s dive to earn the winning penalty in La Remontada is, after review, universally acknowledged to be Oscar worthy.
At Old Trafford, Busquets somehow avoided two clear bookings before Rocchi flashed out a pair at the quarter-hour mark, one to each side, to reestablish his authority. In the second half, the Barca d-mid then escaped a fourth and fifth caution, offering his patented ‘what’s the big deal?’ shrug after each.
Asked to hold up the ball on Ter Stegen clearances in the second half, Suarez soon put an end to Smalling’s kamikaze attacks from behind, improvising a non-existent rap to the back of his skull that drew another caution from the Italian official and a post-match phone call from the talent-starved WWE.
Vidal doesn’t enjoy the level of notoriety in which his two new mates bask, which is as meaningful as saying Mo Salah is a level or two below Messi. What does it matter once either is running at you on the pitch?
You would think the Chilean would be more well-known, coming on late to close out matches with his carefully coiffed mohawk and van dyke. He’d probably carry a pitchfork onto the pitch if the fourth official would permit it. He too had a lesson for a United star.
It turns out Fred fancies himself something of a performance artist as well. The Brazilian went down clutching his boot, howling in pain after Vidal stuck his in approximately a metre in front of the midfielder. To Vidal’s amazement, Rocchi bought the act and held aloft another yellow rectangle.
Not to be outdone, the 31-year-old popped up in the air and tumbled to the ground like your breakfast toast when Jesse Lingard innocently came within range. The United youngster turned into collateral damage as Rocchi reached into his pocket again.
None of the threesome's trickery rubs off on Messi, however. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or bad, but the next time someone asks whether there’s no limit to what the Argentine can do, you’ll have an affirmative answer.