Dark master ready for shadow play
How do you curtail the genius of Lionel Messi? If anyone can, Jose Mourinho can, writes Paul Hayward
The joy-killer's job is not one Jose Mourinho will mind volunteering for in Milan on Tuesday night. He will seize that little genie and stuff him right back in the bottle, if he can, as one of his teams already have.
Mourinho was no longer the Chelsea manager when Jose Bosingwa attended to Lionel Messi so closely in the 0-0 draw in Barcelona 12 months ago that he resembled a sheriff trying to handcuff a bandit. Guus Hiddink provided the tactical plan to smother Messi in that Champions League semi-final first-leg but Mourinho's spirit was apparent out there on the pitch.
To Bosingwa fell the unenviable task of velcroing himself to the world's best dribbler; and while he chased the little menace up and down the flank, a reception committee was primed to meet the Argentinian boy wonder should he cut inside. The Michaels, Essien and Ballack, were the dead end Messi would scamper into if he swerved towards the heart of the pitch.
According to Italy's Corriere dello Sport, Mourinho started planning his blanket-over-the-head response to Messi the day after Arsenal granted the world's No 1 footballer licence to roam in their 4-1 quarter-final second-leg defeat. Arsenal's suicidally open defending was a factor in Messi's stunning quartet of goals at Camp Nou. Inter, we know, will not be so obliging to Barcelona in Tuesday's semi-final first-leg. Mourinho is the matador, not the bull.
With a special player we always have a nullification debate. Fifteen years ago, the Rugby World Cup turned into a symposium on how defences could stop Jonah Lomu in his giant All Black shirt. Lomu wouldn't run round or even through the nice chap in his path. He would crash right over him. In one of football's most famous snaps we see Diego Maradona corralled by more Belgians than you would see in a Tour de France.
Hristo Stoichkov, a member of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona Dream Team, got hype's presses rolling. "Once they said they can only stop me with a pistol, but today you need a machine gun to stop Messi," he said. A Real Madrid blog before last weekend's el gran clasico was headlined: 'How to stop Messi without killing him'.
Mourinho will enjoy this comedy terror. One of those knowing smirks will creep across his features. You can almost see his thought bubble: "Let these people burble about this little Argentine boy and his magic. Let them have their fun. I'll end it when that whistle blows."
The neutral's prayer, plainly, is that Mourinho fails in this dark assignment and ends up a broken man. It may be too simplistic to present him as a bringer of death to creative play but it would offend his nature to have to buy a ticket to the Leo Messi show. We can go further and say that these two games are a test of Messi's potential greatness. If he can overcome Mourinho's tactical cunning in an Italian defensive context, then the high priests of negation will burn their books and clap with the rest of us.
Observing this battle, home and away, will be captivating. In Patrick Barclay's biography of the Inter coach, Louis van Gaal, one of Mourinho's early mentors at Barca, says: "He has more belief in defence than attack. My philosophy is always -- because I believe we must entertain the public -- to have attacking play. His philosophy is to win. That is the difference."
In the coaching zone at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho's eyes would be trained predominantly on the rear half of his team. In a UEFA interview, he said: "In training I sometimes practise keeping a minimum of five players behind the ball, so that when we lose it we can still keep a good defensive shape. The players must learn to read the game -- when to press and when to get back to their defensive positions."
This is not to dismiss him solely as a strangler. At Inter, he has found the right attacking arsenal to win trophies, as he did at Porto and Chelsea. The point is that his primary instinct is to not lose the game, to not concede, and certainly not to allow Messi the kind of freedom last seen at Woodstock. Extreme talent must have its counter-force, after all: it needs something to shine against.
Mourinho's problems, though, are formidable. As Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal all discovered within 12 months, Barca's possession of the ball (70% in some cases) is crushing. Mourinho could asphyxiate Messi in Milan but still lose control of him back in Spain. Maradona's successor plays more centrally now than last year, when Chelsea could throttle him at the moment he turned infield. As the gangs move in to harass him, Messi is like a boy who disappears into brambles but comes out with the lost ball and without a scratch.
If anyone can stop him, Mourinho can, is the way football will look at it. But all season it's been like trying to catch smoke in a butterfly net.