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Don’t Mess With Messi

April 7, 2010

aka The Power of Uncertainty


Last Wednesday’s clash – Barcelona v Arsenal at the Emirates – was noteworthy for several reasons – it was the fixture every football lover had been looking forward to for years, and it certainly lived up to its expectations. It was a game that had everything – silky breathtaking football, beautiful goals, and a stirring comeback. The comeback was so remarkable that even the most stoic observer cannot claim to be unmoved. After the utter domination of the first hour, a double substitution turned the momentum of the game in Arsenal’s favor. Curiously, and poignantly enough, it was the entry of #14 on both sides that made all the difference. Walcott injected pace and life, Henry removed sting from the soccer. The difference was simply that one was sure-footed and swift, the other uncertain of what he was doing, seemingly mired in nostalgia. Those differences spread throughout the field and gradually, in stark contrast to the first half, it was a confident Arsenal and a slightly wavering Barcelona that finished the game. That air of uncertainty permeated the Camp Nou in the first 20 minutes here, too – Arsenal pressed exactly the way they should have in the first 20 minutes last week, and drew first blood with a mixture of aggression, pace, and tenacity.

That, however, was that. For Arsenal’s first goal removed the uncertainty from Barcelona’s football. No more Mr. Nice Guy, the team seemed to say, and none roared it more emphatically than Lionel Messi.

But first, a look at the context; why were Arsenal’s goals arguably more decisive to the outcome of the fixture than any of Barcelona’s? Why, indeed, did Fabregas’s penalty have a greater role to play in Messi’s quadruple than any of Xavi’s passes?

This might sound weird. But it was evident that Barcelona felt like a team wronged after that draw; so did most of the loyal cules. Equally evident was the chink in the armor that Wenger and Walcott conspired to reveal in the final third of that game. Together, these two factors resulted, in hindsight almost inevitably, in the champion’s tentative start last night. A tentativeness born directly of their diametrically opposite and brilliant start last week.

No one could have expected Barcelona to dominate the game as completely as they did in the first 20 minutes last week. Everyone knew it was possible, of course, but it was quite absurd to see 11 shots in 15 minutes – most highlight reels don’t feature that many. Not Pep Guardiola, not Arsene Wenger, none of the millions watching could have predicted that it would be so lopsided. Barcelona, a team that has been on a roll for the past few weeks and is currently on it’s most consistent run of the season, started off like ‘a house on fire’, to borrow a phrase, and gripped the Emirates as hard as it could. Once they were in control, they took a breath and realized that hey, this isn’t so difficult after all. We have this under control. Of course, that was all it took for complacency to sink in, and Arsenal’s resilience duly kicked in along with Theo Walcott’s afterburners.

Victory for Barcelona was assured by the 70th minute; by the 90th minute, that assuredness had been replaced with disgruntlement and questions. Why did Guardiola remove Ibrahimovic? Why did Maxwell appear so vulnerable against Walcott? What was Henry DOING?!

Of course, one controversial decision had much to do with that anger (or, as Erica Jong put it so aptly, disappointed hope). When Massimo Busacca pointed towards the penalty spot, cules exploded in indignation at what was widely perceived to be a dive to them (at this point it would be fair to say that it was an exaggerated fall at the very least). It was one of those decisions that no one will ever be able to settle; what is undisputed is only that Puyol and Fabregas got tangled up and that a goalscoring opportunity was averted. The furious debate that followed centered around the positioning of both players; replays clearly showed that Fabregas had kicked Puyol, but also that he was indisputably trying to kick the ball, only for the defender to put his body in the way.

If Fabregas were behind, and if Puyol had indeed achieved a better position, then it should have counted as a legitimate block and great piece of defending; if Puyol were behind and intentionally jostled Fabregas to avert a kick, then it was a clear penalty and a red card. Images are inconclusive; a frame-by-frame replay, however, shows that at the point of contact, both players were actually level, and thus nothing can be concluded. It was just a harsh decision, but it had a huge impact, for a tie seemed barely believable after Ibrahimovic had smashed home his second goal. No surprise, then, that many felt aggrieved,player and fan alike.

The discomfort at the end of that game was directly proportional to the comfort at its beginning.

And so FC Barcelona kicked off the 2nd leg with an uncharacteristic degree of wariness. Arsenal, too, having learnt well from the first-half hiding last week, picked up their game and pressed like madmen. The Blaugrana passed back and forth, rarely progressing into the final third of the pitch and frequently getting harried into making bad passes. Xavi was the only bright spot in those early moments, almost single-handedly maintaining control of the midfield with trademark possession play.

Then it happened. A crunching Diaby tackle left Gabriel Milito stranded in the center and released a streaking Walcott who squared it for Bendtner to finish despite the valiant efforts of Alves, Valdes, and, yes, Marquez.

Arsenal wouldn’t celebrate for long, however, as the home side were sparked into urgency, reminded of the need to stamp their dominance on their turf. After Lionel Messi’s equalizing shot in anger, it was apparent that this game was over. There was little joy in his celebration; it had been temporarily usurped by ferocity. He did not feed off the crowd as much as feed it – he ran not towards his teammates, but towards the stands – he waved not in joy, but in fury, telling the crowd in no uncertain terms to pump up the volume.

It was the turning point of the second leg. Barcelona did not take a backward step for the rest of the game and inexorably marched to the victory everyone had expected, with even Pep gradually solidifying the team over time, bringing in Yaya Toure and Andres Iniesta to lock down the midfield and giving Maxwell a chance to redeem himself against Theo. It wasn’t Barcelona’s best performance – only Xavi really stood out, and Marquez and Milito were excellent, but the side wasn’t as cohesive as Guardiola would have wanted them to be. It didn’t matter, for their collective skill relative to Arsenal’s meant that they only lacked hunger, which they regained soon enough.

Lionel Messi, of course, has the headlines – with a scarcely-believable performance, and four goals of the highest quality, no one would grudge him that – but it took a sense of indignation to restore drive and purpose last night. Much like Brian Lara, opponents beware – Messi is not someone to deride. The English press damned him with faint praise over the past week; he damned them all with four blows that ripped Arsenal apart. The final goal in particular must have been incredibly demoralizing for the visiting defenders, especially the highly rated Vermaelen. El Pulga turned away after nutmegging Almunia laughing; he must remember, though, along with the rest of his team, that they must always be certain of themselves on the field, and back their skills and style the same way their coach does. A double is certainly possible if Barcelona continue to play this way for the rest of the season – and I will certainly be rooting for it – forza Barca!


Images credit: @barcelonaff, Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian

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