Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Messi gives no clue on who’s best

Cristiano Ronaldo had laid down a challenge which was as hard as anything Lionel Messi had ever faced in his brief but exquisitely luminous career.

He had shown that mere brilliance in controlling the ball would always need the dimension of game-breaking speed and power, and for most of last night it seemed that the demand was too much.

In the end, it was in the matter of his hold on the football stage. But then, when the heavens fell in on Chelsea, Messi (below) was one of the survivors.

When Michael Essien, an immense figure all night lost the ball on the edge of the box, Messi played the ball coolly to Andreas Iniesta.

Iniesta drove Barca into the final, an act of extreme cruelty when all was considered. But Messi had been given back the chance to rule a continent if not the world in Rome in the Champions League final.

Messi had to respond to the challenge set by Ronaldo in a place that three years earlier did not exactly embrace his unique qualities; indeed he was branded a cheat on terraces made nervous by the biting touch of the 18-year-old Argentine and his Brazilian team-mate Ronaldinho.

Messi was brought down by the crudest of tackles by Chelsea full back Asier del Horno in 2006 but when he rolled over as might a recipient of a left hook from Manny Pacquaio the relentless booing poured down. From Messi there was also an unbroken response: a tide of intricate brilliance that carried Barca towards their triumph over Arsenal in the final in Paris.

Last night he was obliged to produce something at least as spectacular but there were times when the man who was supposed to underline his credentials as world player of the year-elect resembled not so much a footballer of supreme destiny but the orphan of an extremely hard fate.

Barca's dismantling of Real Madrid might have been the talk of European football coming into last night's action, but here they stepped from fantasy to a reality that was already being imposed with bone-jarring ferocity before Essien swept Chelsea into a ninth minute lead with a left-footed drive that smacked against the underside of Victor Valdes' cross-bar and rolled across the line.

United put Arsenal to the sword and Ronaldo produced one of the most devastating performances of his career 24 hours earlier but what we were seeing from Chelsea, as Messi raided desperately on the edges of the blue juggernaut, were long passages of pressure which reduced the beautiful team to one of almost winsome frailty.

Messi suffered most when Chelsea were at one peak of their prodigious power early in the second half. He redoubled his efforts but even the perfect balance and the silky touch of his game seemed nothing against the sheer weight of Essien's presence and the intelligent probing of Frank Lampard and, of course, there was always Didier Drogba.

As Messi was increasingly threatened with exclusion from the heart of the game, as Drogba brought a touch of fear to the Barca defence each time he took hold of the ball, or ran into its path, it was odd to the point of bizarre that the man from the Ivory Coast had recently been numbered among Chelsea's least committed players.

Messi put his hands on his hips and fretted. It was, after all, to be a night of supreme achievement but here he was locked in the extraordinary power of Chelsea's hold. He wriggled, he played some passes of beautiful touch, but there was never a break, never a chink in blue armour.

It was not hard to grasps the depth of his despair. All season, after all, he had been the prince of the game, an heir apparent to Ronaldo as the most compelling football talent on earth. But as the minutes ticked by the 21-year-old already anointed by Diego became immersed in the greatest frustration of his career. He was sent into the box by Xavi, but he could find no way through the thickets of Chelsea resistance. It was though Chelsea had denied him all that on which he thrives, space, a glint of encouragement, even a little oxygen.

But then Messi joined in a moment that took away the ground from Chelsea. It is hard to imagine Manchester United, and still less Cristiano Ronaldo, were overwhelmed.

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