James Lawton: Messi brilliance underlines folly of 'super-manager' cult
Published 21/10/2016 | 02:30
Someone had the theory that Lionel Messi's exquisite hat-trick against Manchester City was, more than anything, a rebuke of his old boss and, as some would have it, part-creator, Pep Guardiola.
According to this view of another phenomenal eruption of natural talent, Messi was annoyed at being termed "old" at the age of 29. On the other hand, he may just have become thoroughly wearied by the cult of the super-coach, which is in danger of running out of control.
No-one embodies that more than Guardiola. It was bad enough for City's relentlessly celebrated coach that his old team re-announced that they still belong in a different class. More hurtful still was the fact that some of his key decisions became central to a crushing defeat.
Yet maybe more significant than Guardiola's various embarrassments in tactics and selection - how could he park Sergio Aguero, arguably the world's most dynamic striker, on the bench for the start of a second straight game? - was the re-asserting of an old football truth.
It was the one that says the brilliance, even the genius, of any coach will always depend on the execution of his players.
In this Messi may indeed have brought a touch of reality to the burgeoning belief that never has football been more dependent on the man who picks and directs the team.
It is a possibility that gives another perspective to the latest fanfare surrounding a clash of leading Premier League coaches, this time Sunday's battle between Chelsea's Antonio Conte and Manchester United's Jose Mourinho.
The Special One's much anticipated duel with Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp on Monday was judged something of a pragmatic triumph at the end of a soulless, goalless draw.
Yet, really, what was most important, Mourinho's niggardly tactics or the failure of Klopp's most important attacking players Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to deliver anything like their true potential?
Mourinho's hopes on his return to Stamford Bridge - and his attempt to make United serious title challengers - inevitably most depends on the outcome of the vast investment in Paul Pogba.
If the young French star moves on to the required level of consistent influence, and the old warrior Zlatan Ibrahimovic can illuminate his enduring swagger with a few more crucial interventions, Mourinho may indeed feel a flush of vital renewal.
Similarly, Conte, having apparently won the confidence of Roman Abramovich, is plainly obliged to massage the self-regard of such vital performers as Diego Costa and Eden Hazard even as he plans large-scale strengthening of his squad.
Guardiola, Klopp, Conte, and, we shouldn't forget, in many ways Mourinho more than any, have shown their value along the peaks of the game.
However, all of them are now in receipt of that valuable message from Messi.
They are only as good as the best of their players - and the soundness of their latest judgements.
Typically Guardiola emerged from his Barcelona ordeal breathing defiance, but what he couldn't disguise was the degree of his own culpability in a defeat which ridiculed the idea that his team are anywhere near making a serious challenge for the Champions League title.
At the heart of his angst was the personal disaster of Claudio Bravo, the man in whom Guardiola risked so much instant credibility when he installed him in place of Joe Hart.
But then when you are widely seen as the ultimate coach of the day and maybe the epoch, the last thing you can afford to lose is face.
Thus, Guardiola insisted that he wouldn't change his philosophy of playing the ball out from the back, or his goalkeeper; he was equally unrepentant about his benching of Aguero in favour of a packed midfield.
It all reminded us that while the best coaches propose, it is the great players who will always dispose of the most vital business.
Spanish paper Marca made the point beautifully when it said of Messi: "The ball belongs to him, he governs the match and guides it wherever he pleases."
Which coach, however lauded, wouldn't benefit from having that written across his heart?