Tuesday 20 February 2018

Silencing jose key to barca's legacy

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

ACROSS the sporting world, the recent past has been built on certainties which are currently crumbling around us. It's only since Tiger Woods took the most errant drive of his career into a fire hydrant that we realised just how dominant he was and how much the game needs his red-on-a-Sunday presence.

The current slow bicycle race to number one between Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald isn't something which even golf's most creative marketing person could build a campaign around.

In cricket and tennis, Ricky Ponting and Roger Federer occasionally show glimpses of the brilliance that put them among the greats of their sport but, with every passing year, the tetchiness that flares when simple things go awry is besmirching their legacy.

And then this weekend at the Crucible there was Stephen Hendry, without a ranking title in six years, contemplating walking away as Mark Selby gave him the snooker equivalent of the beating that Larry Holmes handed out to Muhammad Ali.

Like Ali, Hendry was, arguably, the greatest to compete in his sport, but the overriding feeling watching him is now one of sadness at somebody who is an older, heavier version of their prime while a rival who once idolised them is bludgeoning them into retirement.

Even in football, Arsene Wenger's image as a professor is becoming more Eddie Murphy than Stephen Hawking, with the brittle straw of a 16-match unbeaten run no longer available to clutch after yesterday's defeat to Bolton. A win against Manchester United next week would merely underline their ability to perform only when the pressure is off. Short of finding a centre-half named Heimlich, Wenger now seems powerless to prevent his team from choking.

At least, there's still Barcelona. Remember them? They were the ones who were the greatest team of all time -- especially after they played Arsenal for the past two seasons -- who were giving statisticians headaches with the numbers they were racking up.

In one particular game, Xavi had around 4521 passes, Lionel Messi scored nine and the team had 112pc of possession. Maybe not but, if you believed the hype, that's the way it felt.

Over the next nine days, however, they have the opportunity to prove themselves as genuinely among the dominant teams of their generation or, like Arsenal or Gareth Bale, extremely impressive in the part of the season when no trophies are handed out.

Having scored five goals against Real Madrid at the Nou Camp when it seemed there was no point in any other team subsequently showing up to play them, Barca have now gone three and a half hours against Madrid without scoring a goal.

Admittedly, Real have only scored once, and it was enough to win the Copa del Rey final, but the feeling persists that, if a team can handle Messi, they can handle Barcelona.

It seems ridiculous to suggest that the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi or David Villa aren't capable of winning important games without Messi, but, for all the pretty patterns that they paint, any team who has a player that can score 50 goals in a season before the end of April is going to be extremely successful.

Spain won the World Cup playing in similar style to Barcelona, but while most people were pleased to see beauty triumph over the many beasts they faced, the reality was that their lack of a cutting edge cost them in their opening match against Switzerland while four 1-0 wins in a row in the knockout stages wasn't indicative of a team brimming with goals.

Barca might be eight points clear in La Liga, but, for all the talk about it being the best league in the world, the genuine contest for trophies is on a par with Scotland. A league in which the team in second -- just before its most important game of the season -- can travel to the one in third and be 6-1 up with 10 minutes to go hardly speaks of cut-throat competition. That was the reality of Saturday's encounter between Real Madrid and Valencia and, even after two late consolations, the 6-3 scoreline wasn't enough to sum up the gulf in class.

Pep Guardiola's team have won two of the last five Champions League titles and will certainly be remembered for their style in years to come. Yet in a competition which AC Milan have won five times and been runners-up on three occasions since 1989, it takes something more than passing stats to be considered in that company.

Shutting up Jose Mourinho will be a huge step towards achieving the greatness that they have yet to reach, although, given the absence of certainty in the current sporting climate, they may end up losing to Schalke in the final.

If that happens, it might just be time to pack up and go home.

Irish Independent

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