Friday, 9 April 2010

Messi the Messiah

And then there were none. After years of Champions League domination the debt laden Premier League ship has sunk. The previously supreme big four that have made up three semi-finalists in each of the past three years are not part of Europe’s last four remaining contenders. Chelsea, done for by a canny ex-employee, Manchester United by overreliance on a striker with only one good ankle and Liverpool by such sheer incompetence their bid didn’t even make it past Christmas. Only Arsenal can lay the defence of being outclassed by utter genius. 5ft 7in worth of genius to be exact.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had in December 2008 with the landlord of my local pub in Pamplona, where I was ‘studying’ for the year. Tall, broad and with a beaming Dublin accent (even when attempting to speak Spanish) he was the quintessential Irishman abroad. Famous for his ridiculous tall tales of cocaine cruises, drinking sessions with the Killers and the number of Erasmus girls he had slept with, our conversations were littered with disagreements and wagers. However, on that December evening we did agree on one thing - Leo Messi. He was the best player we had ever seen and in our young opinion would prove to be the best the world had ever seen.

The following day I took the journey I had dreamed of all my life, to watch Barcelona v Real Madrid in the Camp Nou. As the rain lashed down, one tiny figure shone out from the sodden hallowed turf. Real had only one way to stop him – kick him – over and over and over again. Yet, what separates Messi, even from other immortals, is that rough treatment doesn’t make him give up, like Pele in ’66, or retaliate, like Maradona in ’82, it makes him angrier, faster, stronger and frighteningly, even better. That December night it took him 92 minutes, but he made his mark on Real. He did again, twice in fact, in the 6-2 romp in Madrid four months later, just like he did when he scored in the Copa Del Rey, Champions League and World Club Cup finals. Like he did when he scored a 70 minute hat-trick against Real Zaragoza in March, a 28 minute hat-trick against Valencia the week before and has done 39 times this season already. But, against Arsenal, even he did something even Lionel Messi hadn’t done before. This time he wasn’t satisfied with a 21 minute hat-trick. This time he scored four.

Arsene Wenger compared Messi afterwards to a ‘Playstation player’ and Barca as the best side he had ever faced. Sir Alex Ferguson said Barca’s midfield was ‘a passing carousel you can’t get the ball off’ after last season’s humiliation in the Champions League final and Bernd Schuster, the former Real Madrid manager, described Barca as impossible to beat, words that unsurprisingly got him the sack.

Yet, despite all the plaudits from around Europe Real couldn’t stand to see Barca humiliate them. Last summer with the Champions League final to be played at their home, the Santiago Bernabeu, there was only one way to stop Barca, or more accurately millions of them, 220 million to be exact. In came Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Alonso and Albiol and, as many expected, Madrid’s spending has had a major impact on the last four of the Champions League. The only problem for ‘los madrileños’ is that it’s not those they brought in that have made the difference. Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben were sold to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich respectively for roughly the price of Ronaldo’s left leg and have carried their sides to the semi-finals. Whilst, the other semi-finalists, Lyon, unceremoniously dumped Real out of the competition at the last-16 stage for the fifth year running.

For Europe’s most decorated club the nightmare scenario awaits. Watching their greatest rivals lifting the greatest prize in their own back yard. For those still in contention the outlook isn’t much brighter. In December 2008 Messi was arguably the best player ever, he’s a lot better now.

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