Champions League – Messi Rises Above The Mundane

Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy looks back at Barcelona’s 2-0 Champions League semi final first leg victory over bitter rivals Real Madrid following a bad tempered affair at the Santiago Bernabeu. Lionel Messi shone and scored twice to push the Catalans within 90 minutes of a final appearance at Wembley.

The statistic displayed on TV with 10 minutes to go said it all. Barcelona 71% of possession and over 482 passes completed. The most important stat however was on the scoreboard where the Catalan’s enjoyed a 2-0 lead. A bad tempered, foul ridden semi final first leg rarely rose above the ordinary in standard and will be remembered for the sending off of Barcelona’s Pinto and Madrid’s Pepe and Jose Mourinho.

A half time scuffle in the tunnel leading away from the pitch resulted in a guarded escort for both teams as they re-emerged for the second half. One individual rose above the mundane play, the petty fouling and play-acting and confirmed his position as the best player on the planet.

Lionel Messi tapped in Barcelona’s opener and then burst clear of five Real Madrid’s defenders before slipping the ball under Iker Casillas to almost certainly book the Catalans place in the Wembley final.

A scrappy opening period saw both sides waste a succession of attacks through sloppy play in the final third and determined defending from both back fours. The decision to deploy David Villa wide on the right rather than in his accustomed central striker’s role denied Barcelona an orthodox attacking focal point. The former Valencia hit-man showed he was just as dangerous coming off the wing however with a stinging shot from the edge of the box shaving the Madrid upright after 10 minutes.

Barcelona enjoyed long spells of possession with Real unable to get on the ball and having to concede territory for much of the first half. The loss of Iniesta didn’t appear to unduly hamper the Catalans as Xavi, Keita and Pedro combined well in the centre of the park.

Pepe was assigned the unenviable task of keeping Lionel Messi quiet but to be fair to the Portuguese international he kept the diminutive Argentinean under wraps for much of the first period. Madrid’s decision to sit back and defend deep infuriated the Santiago Bernabeu faithful as Ronaldo, Ozil and DiMaria saw little if anything of the ball. Ronaldo cut a forlorn figure standing in between the Barcelona centre-backs and angrily gesturing his team mates to push forward and put pressure on the visitors’ defence.

It took almost 20 minutes before the home side managed to keep possession of the ball for a sustained period of time. Real’s revival was short lived however as Barcelona quickly regained control of the tie and carved open the Madrid defence in the 25th minute. A Messi dribble and clever reverse pass released Xavi through on goal and Casillas was forced into a fine stop from the Spanish midfielder’s stinging effort.

A succession of petty fouls upset the rhythm of an otherwise fascinating tussle with a Pepe header safely gathered by Valdes a rare moment of attacking endeavour enjoyed by a Madrid side struggling to put Barca under pressure. DiMaria won a free-kick following an innocuous looking foul by Dani Alves from which Ronaldo struck straight into the wall. It was a poor effort from Madrid’s talisman and symptomatic of a disappointing first half performance from the hosts.

Tempers flared just before the break when Arbeloa went in the referee’s notebook for an off the ball challenge on Pedro which incensed the visitors’ bench.

Ronaldo flashed an effort off the chest of Valdes in first half injury time before the Barcelona goalkeeper recovered to divert Mezut Ozil’s rebound away to safety. Despite Real’s late flurry the opening 45 minutes finished scoreless which was the fairest reflection of an otherwise disappointing tie. Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper Pinto was dismissed for a slap across Arbeloa’s face as the sides left the field at half time which resulted in a stand-off between the two squads. Things settled down once the game restarted as Jose Mourinho introduced Adebayor in an effort to kick start Madrid.

The pattern of the tie changed little as Barcelona continued to dominate possession and Sergio Ramos was booked after a hefty challenge which left Messi sprawling on the turf. Ramos now misses the second leg and the fouling continued as Mascherano’s name went into the book for a crude kick on Pepe.

The nasty undercurrent and the way the tackles were flying in it was inevitable that someone would eventually step over the line. Pepe duly obliged and was sent off for a hack at Dani Alves. The challenge wasn’t the worst but the Barcelona complaints and subsequent dialog between referee and his assistants resulted in Pepe’s expulsion. Cue angry scenes in the technical areas and Jose Mourinho was ordered into the stands following a sarcastic wink and thumbs up to the officials for reducing his side to 10 men.

Barcelona set about making their numerical advantage count and David Villa forced Casillas to go full length in the 68th minute as the whistles of derision howled down from the Santiago Bernabeu. The petty fouling continued and blighted a tempestuous second period which saw free-kick after free-kick awarded in a stop start second 45 minutes.

Ronaldo walloped a long range free-kick miles over the Barcelona crossbar to continue a terrible night for Real’s star player minutes before Barcelona’s equivalent made the crucial breakthrough at the other end of the pitch. Substitute Affelay capitalised on a Marcelo slip and the Dutch international whipped a low cross into the box where the in-rushing Lionel Messi prodded home his 10th Champions League goal in 11 games.

Madrid clung on desperately in the closing stages but were powerless to prevent the best player on view from doubling Barcelona’s lead. It was fitting that the one moment of sublime quality should fall to the game’s and the planet’s best player, Lionel Messi. Collecting a pass 30 yards from goal the Barcelona playmaker darted past two challenges before accelerating into the penalty area past three more defenders. Messi waited for Casillas to advance and slipped the ball under the goalkeeper’s body for a wonderful individual effort. Messi’s marvellous 49th goal in all competitions was the final act on an otherwise forgettable night and it looks like a Manchester United versus Barcelona final in Wembley in May.

Match Statistics courtesy of Opta Jose via Opta Sports on Twitter
• 22 – Barcelona committed more fouls than Real Madrid (18) for the first time in a “Classico” this season. Pepped

• 11 – Lionel Messi is only the second player to reach 11 goals in a single Champions League season, after van Nistelrooy in 02/03. Prolific

• 5 – Five of Barcelona’s last eight goals in Champions League semi-finals have come in the last 15 minutes of games. Torpedo

• 7 – Seven players have been sent off in the last six meetings between Barcelona (two red cards) and Real Madrid (five). War

• 100% – Every single one of Xavi’s 62 passes in the first half reached a team-mate. Perfect

The Author

Ger McCarthy

Author of the book entitled 'Off Centre Circle'. Champions League correspondent for Back Page Football, contributor to the Hold The Back Page football podcast, also a contributor to the Irish Examiner Newspaper, SetantaSports Satellite TV Sports Network, NewsTalk National Radio station, Shoot! Magazine and Dangerhere websites.

3 thoughts on “Champions League – Messi Rises Above The Mundane

  1. Messi scored his 50’th goal in all competitions against Osasuna. Tonight was his 51’st and 52’nd goals of the season

  2. Football machine Barcelona worked perfectly last night and Guardioala’s fine players got a well-deserved win which takes them one step closer to the final. Messi was brilliant once again and proved he is the best player in the world.

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