England wake up to genius of Messi with a bang
One thing that is a little perplexing about this 'global village' age of digital communication in which we live is how ignorant people remain of what goes on beyond their shores in the single most globalised phenomenon on planet earth, the game of football.
It took Lionel Messi's four goals against Arsenal on Tuesday night for the otherwise phenomenally well-informed, promiscuously opinionated British footballing public to figure out what every last man, woman and child in Spain has known for at least two years; namely that the 22-year-old Argentine is "the best player in the world" -- in the words of Arsene Wenger -- by a considerable margin.
So let's try and get ahead of this time-lag problem now and bring people up to speed on just how good Barcelona as a whole are.
First of all, is there anybody out there who disagrees with the Spanish consensus that they are the best team in the world? That they play the game in manner more pleasing to the eye, more effectively than any other?
The fact that they won every single competition they went in for last season, collecting not a mere treble but a sextet of trophies, ought to seal the argument for all but the most jingoistic of fans. The debate simply does not merit attention. That is why the question being asked by every serious commentator in Spain now is more along the lines of the one everybody is now asking of Messi: is this Barca the best team ever?
There, at least, we have a conversation. As of now, though, there is no team in sight that plays association football the way this lot do. Messi may not be entirely of this earth, but the deeper reason they are so good is that they have raised the concept of the team game to a new level.
That Maradona's Argentina have reduced the concept to a new low is a large reason why Messi is not as effective in his national blue and white shirt as he is in Barca claret and blue. No one retains ownership of the ball over 90 minutes longer than Barcelona (they are miles ahead of the rest of this season's Champions League teams in percentage terms). Arsenal are the possession kings of England but the only time they got a look in over the two Champions League quarter-finals was when the Catalans felt they could risk taking their foot off the gas.
Manchester United who, in the conventional thinking, are a more robust, less effective team than Wenger's, were just as straw-clutchingly inept against Barcelona in the Champions League final last May.
What's the secret? Two basic footballing ideas, so hard to sustain game after game, that their coach Pep Guardiola drums into them with the repetitive doggedness of a grizzled Guantanamo brainwasher.
One is that at least one player must always, always make himself available to receive a pass in space; two, that the instant the ball is lost (to say that Barca are weak in defence is nonsense), players must hunt in hungry packs to get it back.
The underlying philosophy that has defined Barcelona since the time that Johan Cruyff, Guardiola's mentor, was in charge is that the ball is an object of desire, that it must be pursued and preserved with the ardour of a jealous lover.
Hoofing the ball up field, indulging in speculative wastefulness of any kind, is, in Guardiola's book, the ultimate sin. And, indeed, the ultimate sin within the Barcelona youth system in which he himself, as a player, was raised, and Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas were too.
The same ethic conspicuously fails to apply in Italian football, neither is it particularly prominently positioned in the mind of Jose Mourinho, the coach of Internazionale, who Barcelona now meet in the Champions League semi-final. The general view in England is that Messi and co will have their work cut out there; that a team that made short shrift of Chelsea in the last-16 stage of the competition will pose a far mightier test than callow Arsenal did.
Perhaps. But that is assuming that Inter are now a significantly better team than they were in the autumn when Barcelona beat them, in the Champions League group stages, with commanding ease. They drew 0-0 at San Siro, with Barcelona making by far the most chances; and then Barcelona won 2-0 at home in what turned out to be an unmenacing stroll in the park. The measure of Mourinho's challenge later this month is that, for the second game, Messi stayed on the bench.
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