The One and Only

Messi, Messi everywhere…

Yesterday made me realize that there was a distinct lack of Messi posts on this blog.

I feel quite justified, though. I’s really annoying to laud the greatest players after their greatest performances. After all, every language has it’s limits and the number of adjectives you can use to emphasize the genius runs out way too quickly. If football ever transcends human ability to describe things, it always happens fastest when there are moments of brilliance involved. It’s not just a question of linguistic depth – after all, in case of those, who’ve been consistently outstanding, most of the most dazzling terms were already used in every configuration one could possibly imagine. Especially about Messi – the player who’s been around for way too long to not exhaust the supplies of compliments.

 

Yesterday, he emerged again. The Camp Nou belonged to him – again. The shouts “Messi, Messi” exploded louder and louder with each goal. Just as he did for the most of this crazy, 21st century, he kept turning professional game into the most primeval form of it; the form we’ve all used to enjoy as children, before we’ve learned what exactly “offside” and “away goal rule” are. Yesterday, the ball naturally orbited around his legs and travelled from them to the opposition’s net. The stakes didn’t matter, the competition didn’t matter, the tactics, grudges or media coverages didn’t happen: it was just him and his little kingdom located somewhere in the third half of every pitch he’s ever played on.

Can you believe it’s been more than 10 years since his professional début for Barcelona? When he was taking his La Liga baby steps against Espanyol, Porto were the reigning UCL Champions, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook started to make first little profits and Luis Enrique, his current head coach, has just retired from competitive football. Back then, Ronaldinho was at the absolute peak of his powers and it took couple more months for his successor to truly capture the headlines. When I first time heard the name ‘Messi’, he was named “Talent of the Month” in a local football newspaper. He was described as “a gifted, headless knight” and called “potential future great, but not of Diego Maradona’s magnitude”.

In an ironic way, whoever typed those words out was right. During the next ten years, Messi has set his own benchmark of greatness, shrugging off both Dieguito from the past and Cristiano Ronaldo from the present – although the challenge from Portuguese superstar has been stronger than anyone else’s ever made against the best footballer on the planet in the whole history of sports. We’re talking about the player who single-handedly tackled eight most prestigious individual records in European football – including all-time most goals in one season, all-time most goals for FC Barcelona and all-time most goals in La Liga – and unified them with his name. Not to mention the style of this achievement.

Leo really does resemble a PlayStation-like footballer. Or rather – the old computer game footballer; a character from the era, where programmists did not invent good enough codes for sports games and pixelated “players” would always have the ball glued to their feet, until they got tackled. With his quick and devilish ability to change directions of runs, Messi was too quick, too clinical to handle; too difficult to be figured out by those who marked him. His goalscoring chances simply kept occurring – and it was the way he finished them that was particularly notable. Instead of trying to pierce the top corners, he’d go for placed shots, often breaking the strikers’ principles and beating the goalkeepers to their near posts. In the age of ultra-light, cosmic technology balls, this gave him the advantage over powerful players, whose shots went over the bar way too often.

In ten years, we’ve witnessed an extreme palette of events – including sensational goals, inhumane resilience to injuries, taxation scandal, mysterious cases of puking for no apparent reason, thousands of TV ads and much more. We read about ridiculous rumours ranging from his open conflict with Alexis Sanchez, through the ultimatums given to club’s management regarding transfer policies, to mad claims that Manchester City and PSG are preparing grotesque bids for his services. Only one thing wasn’t optional: the main hero of this piece of text performing on an extraterrestrial level. Leo was literally popping out of the fridge of every football fan on the planet – and we all loved it.

Yesterday was just another milestone in a story we will all have hard time believing once it ends. Messi faced the team of his former coach, the team that outclassed Barca 7-0 on aggregate just two years ago; the team that even despite massive injury concerns held themselves quite formidably for over an hour at the lions’ cage of Camp Nou. This time, there were no prisoners. Guardiola, who himself admitted to not have any special plan to stop the Argentinian, felt how it was to have Leo in the opposition’s team for the first time in his short managerial career. The tactics didn’t help. The trip he took to observe Messi’s nutmegs against Manchester City didn’t help either. It was a hopeless endeavour.

It didn’t stop Bayern from trying, though. In a game utterly different from anything they’ve experienced this season, they were unable to boss the possession they normally did against Porto or Shakhtar. But it clearly wasn’t their aim, as the team went for a fairly direct approach upfront and attempted to create chances rather than mark time. Sadly for them, the front line consisting of Mueller and masked Lewandowski, failed miserably. Ter Stegen never had to save even one accurate shot! Having Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Alonso and Thiago all crammed into the midfield was simply too much – the team lacked an attacking outlet and was quite lucky too end up 0-0 after 45 minutes.

What was even going on it Leo’s head after quite uneventful, quite wasteful first half? More sane, more ordinary people like you and me would probably think that his motivation was the anticipation of El Clasico in Berlin. Or, perhaps more significantly, that out of eleven Bayern players on the pitch, five proceeded to steal World Cup trophy from the Argentinian when he was almost putting his hands on it. Someone might even point out that the main standout of that cagey, nervous game on Maracana was Germany’s centre-back Jerome Boateng, who led his teammates to keep a clean sheet. Or bring back the memories of a 4-0 washout at Allianz Arena, where Messi, for a while, turned out to be just a mere mortal…

 

There’s no insight in the mind of Messi we can legitimately claim to be true. The books about him, hand-made by obedient ghostwriters, cannot be possibly taken seriously and he himself doesn’t publish anything. We have nothing close to the stories Platini, van Basten or Maradona himself provided us with. However, I doubt that the importance of the clash really got to him. It’s debatable whether Leo was even upset by Luis Suarez’s lack of incision when it was needed – the Uruguayan, previously amazing, this time failed to make the most of his chances. If I had to bet my money on Messi’s thoughts before returning to the pitch, I’d all-in on his complete, all-consuming focus on whatever happens next.

At this point, Bayern deserved sympathy. Stripped of Robbery, stripped of Alaba, hanging on to a lifeline thrown to them by two fantastic saves by Neuer, they went back into the fray with a lot of optimism and really started to string the passes together between 46th and 60th minute, hoping to at least back-up this improvements with an away draw. The ephemeral 1-3-1-3-3 formation, aimed to meet the MSN trio with individual marking, experienced few headaches from Iniesta’s and Rakitić’s runs, but was holding the floodgates closed for the most of the time. The visitors were clearly second-best but far from getting dominated – and if this ended up as a goalless affair, no neutral fan could complain.

Yet when the goals finally started to pour, it was just as surprising as nostalgic. Especially the realization that the man, who’s only 27 already did this before. His first, match-winning strike was a reminiscent of what he’s done against Manchester United in a 2011 final. The same kind of vicious, long shot out of the blue, the same bamboozled goalkeeper – we’ve certainly seen that before. Same happened for the second goal – a copy of a strike Leo added to his CV on March 17th 2012, when he left Sevilla’s Andreas Palop catching air as Barcelona won 2-0 on Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan. In it’s new edition, Emir Spahić was substituted by Boateng and Neuer took the role of Palop. Only one person didn’t change…

 

All the effort in vain. This was the ball Neuer could not save anymore.

Which made me think more. Until this year, I thought Messi is still racing with Cristiano Ronaldo in an overblown fight for the title of the best player in the world. This year, I’ve changed my mind: I started thinking that Messi left Ronaldo behind his back and is only racing with himself. But yesterday, upon seeing Leo’s two goals and one assist contribution in a third game in a row, upon seeing how similar those goals are to his goals from the past, I’ve realized that he can’t even race with himself anymore. He can’t – because he’s already done it all and now, the most he can do is copying himself at the same level of excellence that is unattainable for anyone else. Unless, of course, a new challenger appears very soon.

Because right now, there is none. If this Champions League saga ends differently than with a clean-cut Barcelona’s win, it will be a shocker. I could use almost any statistic to back this opinion up and they’d all speak volumes: this season, Messi has already scored two hat-tricks in three days (one against Sevilla in La Liga and one against APOEL in Champions League). Apart from that, he also scored two or more goals in 15 out of his 49 total appearances for Barcelona. And even more to the point: out of those 49 games, only 13 ended with him not contributing at least one goal or one assist to his team’s record. Plus – in Berlin, there will be 10 more Barca players on the pitch to support this madness.

 

Who’s going to wait for them in the German capital? It’s a big question – but, judging from the other first leg of this semi-finals, Real Madrid would actually be more comfortable rival for Blaugrana in the final than Juventus. Unlike Zebrette, Carlo Ancelotti’s team still have plenty of unresolved problems. Last Tuesday, we’ve seen the return of shaky Iker Casillas in goal. Gareth Bale, who’s been the decisive factor near the end of the last season, falls more and more into the category of Florentino Pérez’s failed transfer extravaganza. Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos are only starting to work out each others’ game in the middle. Benzema and Modrić are sidelined for good. Et cetera, et cetera…

But, truth to be told, I don’t think the debate of “Real vs Juventus” matters much. Because only one team in the world has Messi. The other teams have to somehow exist without the guy. And they do exist. They even sometimes win trophies. At least until they meet The Guy They Don’t Have in a direct encounter. Then – it’s down to the wire.

One day, upon being asked what does defender need to stop Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta answered: “A gun”.

And now? What do they need NOW?

Advertisements

One thought on “The One and Only

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s