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Messi magic fails to cast spell on Blues' dogged old guard

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Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Getty Images

Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Getty Images

Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Getty Images

BOBBY Charlton told the Spanish media recently that every club in the world "should try to play like Barcelona."

The trouble is, all the biggest ones are busy trying to stop Barcelona playing like Barcelona: a task that fell on Chelsea here like one of Gaudi's buildings.

There were a scraps of comfort. Lionel Messi had not scored against the Stamford Bridge brigade in six attempts. His record in England was one goal from 10 visits. And, er, that was about it.

In other news, Messi had scored 41 times in La Liga this term, on 63 occasions for Barca overall and 68 times for club and country. His eight hat-tricks in this 2011-12 campaign must have struck terror into Gary Cahill, John Terry's partner at centre-back, who is only four months into his Chelsea career.

Messi kicked off in his black No 10 jersey, and a slow pattern was set of blue Chelsea shirts in sentry positions before the game found its moment of electrification: a ball over the top, of all things, which Alexis Sanchez met behind Terry and Cahill lobbed against the crossbar.

Feet quickened, urgency increased and Chelsea sparked into action as Didier Drogba, chosen ahead of Fernando Torres, launched himself down the centre-forward's channel off a broad and muscular midfield base.

Drogba's stroked finish in first-half added-time was yet another affirmation that Chelsea are happiest doing what they know best: thundering up the middle of the pitch with the Big D spooking defenders.

Messi, the alchemist, traipsed off the field grimacing.

Barcelona's numerous missed chances (some of them his) seemed a total mystery to him, an offence against nature which he and the rest of the passing-gang now needed to correct.

This Champions League campaign has added urgency for Pep Guardiola's total footballers, and not just because no team since AC Milan in 1990 has successfully defended the European title. Real Madrid's superior consistency in La Liga has compelled their old enemy to pursue Champions League success with even greater conviction.

Saturday's second league El Clasico of the season sits between these continental clashes with Roman Abramovich's club.

In Roberto di Matteo's block formation and counter-attacks we saw a reversion to the tactics that gave Barcelona so much trouble in the eight matches between 2005-09. But in the first half-hour we saw Drogba become increasingly isolated as Guardiola's illustrious ball-circulators poked and prodded the spaces around Chelsea's giants.

Drogba tumbled, winced and rolled when tackled.

But he never lost the destructive intent he brings to his best work.

A word to describe the effect of Barcelona's relentless ball-hogging on the opposition is debilitating. It requires an intellectual -- almost spiritual -- acceptance that the game will have to be won in the intermissions between Barcelona moves.

Jose Mourinho worked this trick on his players at Inter Milan. He made them understand the power of patience against the best team of this era. Inter shielded, waited, hounded, waited and then retaliated with lightning breaks.

Mourinho's Real Madrid have tried that too -- with a large dose of physicality thrown in -- to no avail. When Chelsea more or less revived the method on a cold night of April showers, they relied on the 34-year-old Drogba and the freshness of Ramires and Juan Mata to relieve the siege.

This was the fifth anniversary of Messi's Maradona impersonation against Getafe, when he slalomed to score, from inside his own half, much as El Diego had against England at the 1986 World Cup.

Still in his tender years, England had not been a happy hunting ground for Messi, apart from last May's final against Manchester United, when he was often unplayable.

Vivid

Some of us still hold vivid memories of the distress he inflicted on Chelsea's Asier del Horno here in February 2006, when the world's best player was only 18.

Del Horno was in such a state after half an hour that his left leg became a scythe. Out came the red card, after 36 minutes.

Later, Mourinho suggested, ludicrously, that Messi should be in theatre.

The world No 1 could not have guessed that Gary Cahill would be such a dogged opponent. As rain tipped down, the former Bolton Wanderer threw himself in the path of a Messi drive with Terry-esque determination. Later, he poked the ball off Messi's toe at the end of an especially menacing run.

Football has reached the point where it thinks nothing can be done about Barcelona's brilliance, beyond trying to copy it, in the long term (Charlton's point). But history says no team is immune from all forms of pressure.

Barcelona know they can always out-pass Arsenal, or even Manchester United. Chelsea, though, have this talent for disrupting their syncopation.

Infuriatingly, Drogba can even out-drama-queen Sergio Busquets, as he demonstrated by clutching his unmentionables after an innocuous collision. By then, Messi was running at full tempo, cutting this way and that as he heaped pressure on Chelsea's players in the approach to their penalty box.

This was a night that treated us to the rare spectacle of Barcelona being dragged outside of their comfort zone. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent