Friday 24 November 2017

Messi stakes claim to be greatest of all

Argentine maestro underlines dazzling talent by ripping Fergie's men apart, writes Jason Burt

The man at the centre of world football's dreams fulfilled them last night. Lionel Messi, the Pulga Atomica (Atomic Flea), provided compelling evidence that he not only belongs in the pantheon of the game's greats but may simply be the greatest of them all.

It wasn't just a goal of power and precision, but a performance that gilded the belief that this Barcelona side may just, also, be the best the world has seen. Admiration is universal, to such an extent that those he faces may even appear frozen before him.

Certainly the way in which Nemanja Vidic, the rock in the Manchester United defence, stood off as Messi advanced to unleash his fiercely driven shot to restore Barcelona's advantage, suggested he has reduced them to that. Vidic appeared stunned and perhaps stunned also by his own inaction.

That goal was the first Messi had scored on English soil in the Champions League -- a spurious statistic that stretched to 680 minutes, although there was a more meaningful one in that this was his 12th in 13 games in this competition this season, equalling the record Ruud Van Nistelrooy set when he was with United.

For Messi, this season, it is now 53 goals in 55 games. Four times in the first half Messi nutmegged an opponent, and that included one through the legs of Vidic after which the striker surged forward, released David Villa and only narrowly failed to reach the return ball and turn it into the net.

Messi reacted to that not by thumping the turf, but with a smile. Always a smile. The smile was there again as he found himself one-on-one with Rio Ferdinand inside the area, inducing all kinds of palpitations, only to slip.

The man in the luminous green boots lit up this occasion, which was a pyrotechnic of a match. It raced along like a blur with Messi, at times, its still centre. Michael Carrick will wake this morning with sore limbs -- after the exertions of this game -- but that stiffness will be as nothing to the crick in his neck. The United midfielder had to swivel his head frantically from side to side to try and see where Messi had gone. The false No 9 picked a position just off Carrick's shoulder and created all kinds of chaos. The defenders didn't know whether to stick or twist and, too often, came unstuck.

There was a superb -- it had to be -- tackle on Messi by Vidic inside the area, while Carrick and Ji-Sung Park did stop him in his tracks early on. But Messi was mesmeric and his involvement was almost metronomic as the rapidity of the passing sequences increased. United were working frantically just to stay in touch, gaps being created all around them, little fires which they desperately tried to extinguish. Messi held the torch.

Alex Ferguson said there had been no special plans, no man-marker, but that every player can be stopped. That's true but the difficulty with Messi is he is relentless. He is also part of the team not just its most precious component.

Messi may have been the quietest man out there but he communicates with the ball. At his feet, it never strays too far ahead of him and the way in which he accelerates away is unmatched. Former Argentina striker Jorge Valdano summed it up when he was asked to compare Messi to Maradona. "Diego sometimes used to put his foot on the accelerator, whereas Messi lives with his pedal to the floor," he said.

And he leaves others in his wake. At one point Vidic stood off. Fatal. Messi turned and surged forward to slide a pass through to Villa with only Ferdinand's anticipation preventing another goal. Then he beat Ryan Giggs, ghosted through two more challenges and marginally over-hit a pass to Pedro.

Twice Antonio Valencia was reduced to simply chopping him down in mid-flight. Patrice Evra headed away his goal-bound shot, a curling side-footed effort after Dani Alves had been thwarted which was the culmination of another move he had instigated.

A few seconds latter Messi was afforded the space to regain Barcelona's lead while only Edwin van der Sar, with his feet, prevented a second as the striker skipped around Ferdinand.

By then, United were struggling even to gain a semblance of a foothold in the contest. Messi had taken it away from them. He had ended their dreams.


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