Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Barcelona 6, Arsenal 3: the difference between suprise and astonishment

Firstly, Messi.

Dancing or negotiating his way between limbs - his enemies' and his own - like the words of a beat poem in the arms of popular culture. Or, carrying the ball like a boy bursting towards a try-line desperate to impress his dad, only with his toes. And always, the Argentinian is executing ruthlessly, a man revered as well as loved. And visibly small but muscled, and young but somehow so clever in each and every phase. Lionel Messi is the winged winger, a thing of beauty and a joy forever (so long as all his top ten goals compilations on youtube are being archived somewhere else).

It's not that I can not believe in the existence of a footballer dipped in the Styx: Zidane, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and both Ronaldos did things to me I'm ashamed to talk about. But in Messi, the twenty first century has conceived its own, arguably corrected, Maradonna. The comparisons will continue to be made. But already - Messi only twenty-two years old - it is no more insightful to label Messi, the new Maradonna, as it is Maradonna, the old Messi. This evening I was astonished by his balance, his dynamism, his pace and his power, in or outside of the box, that sent shivers down even the most brittle of spines. Lionel Messi has now scored 119 goals in 204 professional games. And he's not even a striker.

As we took to our sofas and seats and floors around the world, and Ils sont les meilleurs / Sie sind die besten / These are the champions / Die Meister / Die Besten /Les grandes équipes / The champions! boomed around Nou Camp, and the camera moved over the pageant of players and officials, one couldn't help but wish that Arshavin, Ibrahimovic, Gallas, Puyol, Fabregas, Iniesta, Van Persie and, especially, Henry were fit and, or, starting. Even if there was more than a chance of a vintage Messi display silencing the (just about audible) visiting support, a star-studded cast could have produced an even more stunning showpiece. For any unblinkered fan of the sport, the eulogic press response to Fabregas's first-leg performance seemed ludicrous. Prior to his penalty and injury, the Arsenal captain was lacklustre, doing nothing to affect a game which was poised perfectly for even the 50% fit-playmaker to outclass two of his World Cup squad-rivals, Xavi and Busquets. He will now miss that tournament and - amazingly - Spain won't miss him, blessed amply by Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Senna and much, much more.

It's rare that Andy Gray doesn't seem out of his depth when analysing football. If he hadn't forged a career in media, Gray would doubtless have been sitting in the pub with the rest of us this evening, or rather, an irritating extra, chirping nonsense from the raging lights of some fruit machine. I'm imagining something antithetical to the Carling, You know who your mates are, pitch. But when, in the first half, he accused Barcelona of being a one-man team, La Liga followers everywhere will have winced at Gray's understanding of the best football team in the world: Ibrahimovic, Pedro and Henry are variably brilliant, Bojan is a comely talent while Iniesta and Xavi are two of the best midfield players in world football. In Maxwell and Daniel Alves, they also possess possibly the two most enjoyable attacking full backs to watch in Europe.

This brings me to a challenging thought for the neutrals: how are we supposed to feel when one of the top-four-elite in Britain are drawn against the beautiful Barcelona or the galacticos of Real Madrid or better still, one of the tournament's quiet threats - Bordeaux or Lyon? Naturally as a Spurs supporter, I am inclined to enjoy the demise of Arsenal or Chelsea so I will probably never embrace the patriotism in club football. Nonetheless I don't see the point. I might have a soft spot for the odd club, but my bag is Spurs and England thank you very much. An Englishman's sense of patriotism has no place in the modern domestic game, but it has a time and a place at the international tournaments where its Premiership heroes break our hearts. Just remember Portugal, or look to this summer's contenders.

Indeed the Premiership has no consciousness of our grass-roots other than charity chores and the few well-protected memories of its more grateful ambassadors. This was illustrated by a typically half-baked comment a fortnight ago coming from (who else but) Arsene Wenger. After his team threw away the points at Birmingham, Wenger blamed the pitch for not being 'normal'. St Andrews is no DW Stadium, besides I'm sure most Sunday League footballers would cherish passing a ball on grass cut like that.

Now I have nothing against a person who supports Arsenal. I'd rather have a drink with a passionate (there are some) Arsenal fan than a Spurs fan who doesn't know when we did the double. But for the neutral, how can choosing to support Arsenal be a British thing to do? These aren't the days of George Graham managing Adams, Winterburn, Dixon, Platt, Merson etc. The stadium - apart from having pushed the fans further away from the pitch - is called Emirates, the manager is French, the captain and best player is Spanish, the next best players are Dutch, Russian or French. In fact only two of Arsenal's current first team squad are English, Sol Campbell (the archetype of forsaken loyalty in the modern game) and Theo Walcott (an admirable but frustrating talent).

Back to the game.

In the end, nobody could argue with the result. Arsenal were very unlucky to draw Barcelona in the Quarter Finals but somebody had to. Wenger's side hardly seemed to peform below or above par in either leg. The strike-rate depended on what gear Barca were in, and their varying degrees of clinical finishing: in reality the match should have been over by half-time at Emirates. Arsenal's better peformers included Diabe and Nasri, while Almunia, surprisingly, was their best player over the two legs, preventing a rugby score, and looked more convincing than his off-form Spanish counterpart, Victor Valdes. Clichy showed once again how fast he is, but not a lot else; his idiosyncratic dumb positioning played Barcelona onside for a goal, and made things easier for the opposition down his flank throughout the tie. Although Song was missed tonight, he is still a season or two away from becoming as consistent a defensive midfield brute as the likes of Essien, Fletcher and Palacios.

Unfortunately for Arsenal supporters, the only thing this year's tie has in common with that final of 2005 is a celebrating Barcelona, and possibly the best player in the Arsenal team leaving the losers for the winners in the next available transfer window. Fabregas, who after (what is likely to be) another trophy-less season, is expected to move this summer, with Barcelona desperate for his signature. Perhaps Chelsea would have fared better in the first leg of this tie, but not even with a Michael Essien-augmented midfield could Chelsea have observed a clean sheet in that wave-after-wave of fountaining Romanticism at Emirates. And then in the second leg, Messi scored four goals. In a Champions League Quarter Final. Messi scored four goals. Champions League Quarter Final. Against Arsenal. Four goals. At half-time I received a text from a friend which read: "Well, I guess he hadn't scored a hat-trick for a fortnight".

Forgive or play along with my hyperbole, but Lionel Messi is the Son of (my) God and I am one of a billion disciples writing in his name.

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