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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Divine intervention of Messi exposes Arsenal's feet of clay

Dion Fanning

When Pep Guardiola was asked about Theo Walcott last week, he gave an answer which the naive may have interpreted as apprehension and the giddy as fear.

Walcott, he told the press, was "faster than all my players put together". Then, it would appear, Pep Guardiola put Theo Walcott out of his mind.

Nobody was talking about how quickly Leo Messi could run last week. Nobody was crunching numbers and producing stats that suggested he was faster than Usain Bolt. Nobody cared.

Instead they wondered if Messi was as good as Maradona. It is an interesting debate, but until Messi goes out and wins matches with a coke hangover and all the attendant paranoia, which wasn't just paranoia as he did have the Naples mafia on his case, Maradona probably still shades it.

Maradona himself announced that Messi is "playing like Jesus" which probably makes him the son of God in Maradona's world.

They will have to work together in the summer, providing evidence that genius doesn't really rub along that well with genius, especially when one of the geniuses may be, as they like to say, cross-addicted.

Messi just does what he does and the world stops. Everyone who has been hardened by football in recent times thawed out on Tuesday night. Everybody glimpsed what the game can be when Messi took Arsenal apart.

Suddenly there was something to talk about other than Nama and Gordon Brown's smile. Football endures because of fearless men like Messi.

The world flocks to Barcelona for many reasons: their anti-establishment past and their sense of the game as a glorious art. Ultimately, what makes Barcelona special is their commitment to values that are not unique, but are practised by a few.

There were no tactical trends to observe on Tuesday night, no projections of what the game could become with bigger, faster, stronger players. There was just the concession to genius.

There will be plenty of Uefa seminars given on how to stop Barcelona but there probably won't be as many on how to play like them even if what they did was timeless.

Some analysts acted as if Barcelona had discovered hard work but it is only teams like Arsenal that think because you have stated a desire to play football, the hustle is not required.

Arsenal tried the hustle on Tuesday but it was not in their nature. They may have been without a number of key players but so were Barcelona. On Tuesday night, Messi achieved many remarkable things, one of which was to make Barcelona look like a one-man team.

He will find that harder when players like Iniesta and even the capricious Zlatan Ibrahimovic return but he will not complain. Messi represents Barcelona in his attitude even more than in his ability which is a representation delivered solely from the point of view of the genius.

Guardiola is a remarkable coach. Trusting and confident in his players, his message is also timeless.

Arsenal were left looking helpless and crude. When Messi burst through for his third goal, Manuel Almunia came out to block him. Almunia made himself look big, as goalkeepers do, and Messi just went over him, lobbing the ball into the net. Almunia was trying to make himself bigger, but he could never be big enough. He grasped for the ball but it wasn't there, nothing was, and his body jerked in several uncomfortable directions, like a drunk uncle dancing at a wedding.

There were some who believed Arsenal had a chance because, if Barcelona's first half in the Emirates had been the best 45 minutes Guardiola had ever seen, things could never be as good again.

But it wasn't Messi's best 45 minutes; that was still to come and he produced the best, for now, in the Nou Camp.

All Arsenal had left was their moments of garbage time in the Emirates which had cruelly allowed them to glimpse hope. And when hope allows you that kind of a glimpse, it is usually trying to bring you closer before kicking your teeth in.

When Theo Walcott was the man they had turned to for salvation, then the beating was inevitable.

The exit of Arsenal and Manchester United led many to declare the end of the Premier League. When a league has appeared to be run with the same financial checks and balances as Ireland and applied the same gossamer-touch regulation, then you don't need to be Ben Bernanke to think there might be a time of doom impending, a moment when the good days are over.

English football has the same problem it had when it came in only more so.

Walcott has been suffering for it for four years and, if the English game is in decline, it is fitting that the week that marked it was notable for some off-air home truths from Sky's anchor Richard Keys.

"Get up you stupid little boy," Keys was heard saying in an online stream. It is appropriate that Sky denies Keys said the most perceptive comments ever attributed to him.

They have played their part in shaping a generation of English footballers who have always seemed bewildered when things didn't work out as Sky expected them to.

Walcott was trailed as the star for Arsenal in the Nou Camp but the moment he was given the chance, he chose to pass to Nicklas Bendtner. He was the beta male and his pass was so sloppy it nearly denied Arsenal's moment of false hope.

When Abou Diaby had the opportunity moments later to pass to Walcott again, he was criticised for not releasing the fastest man on the pitch who was through on goal. Why would he when he had seen how the "stupid little boy" had frozen seconds earlier.

Keys was right. The night had been that startling. The world had been turned upside down. Genius had won. It doesn't always even if Pep Guardiola appeared to know it would.

Sunday Independent

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