Friday 24 November 2017

Wiles of devil no match for pure gusts of genius

James Lawton

James Lawton

If there are still questions about Barcelona's reputation as the greatest team we have ever seen, those about Lionel Messi's ability to do anything he chooses seem to shrivel a little more with each new challenge the little Argentinian undertakes.

Last night, he unlocked to doors to Wembley so exquisitely even Jose Mourinho had to square up to the most unpalatable fact.

It is this: no football coach on earth has the wit or the invention to stop the pure gusts of authentic genius.

If you were looking for a defining moment earlier in this ugly display of some of football's darkest, pettiest art, beyond evidence that either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo could crack open the game as though it was indeed the sweetest of nuts, it came at the first serious descent into the warfare that had always been anticipated.

Barcelona players milled around the German referee Wolfgang Stark after Alvaro Arbeloa had stepped into the path of Pedro, who naturally went down as they though he had just been hit by a howitzer.

This was a prelude to the riotous scenes at half-time, when Barca reserve goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto was sent off for his involvement in a battle at the mouth of the tunnel.

The precise revealing moment, though? A shot of Jose Mourinho smiling his most sardonic smile.

This is the man who has been variously categorised as anti-football, the evil genius, the man whose competitive heart sings most heartily when he has worked serious disruption in the minds and the hearts of his opponents.

What did the Mourinho smile say? It said that he was happy enough with the fact that Barcelona had been restricted to just a couple of moments of serious menace and that Messi had been involved in only one of them -- a marvellously perceptive turn and pass into the path of Xavi Hernandez.

In the absence of Andres Iniesta, the burden on Xavi last night was huge and at this moment in showed in a shaky pull of the trigger that send the ball ballooning over the bar.

Unfortunately for Mourinho, the job wasn't half-done. You can attack the psyche of a whole and brilliant team but subduing Messi is another and entirely different matter.

At one point, Ronaldo looked across to Mourinho imploringly. He wanted some upgrading of the game plan that involved not a lot more than the spoiling, needling suppression of the Barca brilliance.

Significantly, Mourinho turned away, impassively. He seemed to be saying that he was in charge of the hopes of the Bernabeu crowd not the art lovers who attend the Prado art gallery.

If anyone was looking for beauty, Mourinho seemed to be saying, they had probably come to the wrong place.

If there had been any doubt about this it dissolved a few minutes later when Arbeloa, a man who might create tension at Mass, apparently said something that inflamed Seydour Keita at the half-time whistle.

Now, after the latest phase of the psychological warfare that Mourinho initiated this time last year when plotting Internazionale's route into the final, it was time for something a little different.

Emmanuel Adebayor appeared for the second half and suddenly Barca had more to think about than how they might break open another battle in this endless civil war.

You could never discount the pocket genius, of course, but then nor could you put aside, not entirely anyway, the persistent Mourinho charge that his team carry a handicap in the matter of match discipline.

Not, certainly, when Pepe became the latest Real player to be dismissed from the trenches of a game against Barcelona.

Pepe went hard for the ball and made serious contact with Dani Alves, who was stretchered off in the kind of agony that might have made you worry he was a case for amputation.

However, he returned almost immediately, a fact which did nothing to lighten the glowering expression of a Mourinho who had by now been banished from the touchline.

Some would say, of course, that if you try to make a deal with the devil the consequences can be, well, diabolical.

Mourinho's defence is the old one that when are you pitted against superior forces, you are obliged to fight the odds in any way you can.

It is a philosophy which will always divide the game, always create a combination of grudging admiration and a groundswell of disdain.

The disdainers, almost inevitably now, enjoyed their sweetest moment when Messi, the irrepressible force, ran brilliantly across the face of the Real goal to quite surgically flick in the opening goal.

There was still another crushing confirmation of miraculous talent as he ran through Madrid unstoppably for the second, a climactic, brilliant unlocking of the gates of Wembley.

Mourinho's head fell on his chest. The wiles of the devil were no help now. (Independent News Service)

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