How do you solve a problem like Messi Celtic take on football's toughest challenge
11:34 GMT, 23 October 2012
Step forward Charlie Mulgrew, Efe Ambrose and Victor
Wanyama – the latest contestants on football’s impossible challenge.
The challenge of stopping a player with 53 Champions
League goals in 70 matches, of keeping quiet a man with 201 goals in his last
200 games, of stifling a threat that has delivered 71 goals already this
calendar year – just 20 less than your entire team.
The conundrum of ‘How to stop Lionel Messi’ is the biggest
chin-scratcher in football and, on Tuesday night in the Nou Camp, Celtic’s Neil
Lennon and his defenders will be the latest to try and solve the puzzle.
Crowded house: Celtic would be well advised not to give Lionel Messi this much room in Tuesday night's match
Form of his life: Messi completes another hat-trick in Barcelona's 5-4 win at Deportivo at the weekend
They will try and stop what was once famously called the
‘passing carousel’ orchestrated by ten of the most technically gifted players
in the world. They will try and shackle a player who has more records than the
annual stocking filler hardback published by Guinness.
At least the boss isn’t kidding himself about the scale
of the challenge – ‘You are wary of being embarrassed. You don’t want that – I
certainly don’t want that,’ Lennon said in the build-up to the Champions League
Group G tie.
‘People say, “what’s it like to play in the Nou Camp
Well, you come off and say “I don’t know, I don’t remember much about it.” I
was too busy doing this that or the other.’
Lennon can reflect with enormous satisfaction on his two
visits there as a player. A battling goalless draw in the UEFA Cup in March
2004 against Ronaldinho and company which carried Celtic through 1-0 on
And a 1-1 draw in the Champions League group stage the
following season, in which John Hartson fired an equaliser to cancel out Samuel
Right approach: Celtic may have to get as tight to Messi as Neil Lennon (right) and Chris Sutton did to Ronaldinho in 2004
MESSI BY NUMBERS
In all competitions, Messi has 201 goals in his last 200 matches for Barcelona. He is one away from his 300th club goal.
Messi's 53 goals in 70 Champions League matches makes him the third highest all-time scorer in the competition
He has 15 goals for Barcelona so far this season and 71 in this calendar year. The latter stat means he is closing in on a benchmark set 53 years ago by Pele, who scored 75 goals in 1959
Messi has 11 goals in 22 games against British opposition
But with respect to the past, and to Celtic’s ability,
Barcelona now play at a level several times higher than they did then. As
Lennon acknowledged, you can be ‘eaten alive’ by them.
If news of Barcelona shipping four goals at the weekend
against Deportivo offered hope their defence might not be quite so imperious at
the moment, it’s worrying that they still scored five and, with great
inevitability, Messi got three of them.
The Argentinean is closing in on another eye-catching
record – usurping Pele as the player who has scored the most goals in a
calendar year (Pele got 75 in 1959 for club and country, Messi has 71 and it’s
only the end of October) and a few against Celtic will almost get him there.
The leading theory for sides trying to counter Messi –
and Barcelona – can seem scientific: Place as many immovable objects in the way
of the irresistible force. But the defenders of La Liga who know him best have
in their time come up with a few practical tips that Celtic might want to heed.
You know what you have to do: The task falls to Efe Ambrose to keep Messi and co at bay in the Nou Camp
Martial arts Victor Wanyama could be deployed in front of the back four to disrupt Barcelona's passing – though perhaps not like this
FANCY A FLUTTER
Messi is 7-4 favourite to score the first goal against Celtic with Bet365, with David Villa at 10-3. The first Celtic player is Gary Hooper at 14-1. Messi is 3-1 to score a hat-trick.
Barcelona are 1-12 to win, Celtic are 25-1 with the draw at 10-1.
You can get the same odds on a 6-0 win for Barcelona (20-1) as a 1-1 draw.
Barcelona to win by a four-goal margin or greater is priced at 7-4.
You might think taking a physical approach against Messi
is the one nobody has thought of, but the Real Betis full-back Javier Chica
says he has tried this – and well and truly failed. ‘You can’t foul Messi! Two
touches and he’s gone,’ he has said.
‘Better to try and make sure that he only receives the
ball with his back to goal and is unable to turn. If he turns and faces you, if
he can see all his options clearly, he is very dangerous.’
He may be an ex-Rangers man, but Celtic might also listen
to Juanma Ortiz, now at Granada, who recommends that defenders show him onto
the outside at all times as it’s more ‘unnatural’ for him.
Gonzalo Rodriguez, now at Fiorentina but late of
Villarreal, has stressed the critical importance of staying compact and
disciplined, while Bilbao’s Andoni Iraola says you need to keep tabs on him
even when you’re in possession ‘in case’ the ball breaks to him.
If there’s one man who knows how to halt Messi, it’s Jose
Mourinho. He has faced him with Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – and he’s
also an advocate of collective organisation.
Special: Jose Mourinho masterminded a win for Inter Milan over Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final
‘I am against man-to-man marking,’ he revealed after
Inter had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals in 2010. ‘We
defend as a team, in zones – one man alone cannot stop Messi.
‘You can’t say it was [Esteban] Cambiasso that stopped
Messi or that our midfield or our defence stopped Messi – we worked together
and played in zones.’
Another Madrid favourite, Michel Salgado, concurs. ‘The
best way to stop Messi is as a team. It is incredibly important to double up on
him at all times and you have to be as tight as possible as a defensive unit.’
Real have previously deployed someone like Pepe to roam
in front of the back four with, in essence, the sole aim of roughing Barcelona
But equally, Sir Alex Ferguson had his staff compile the
biggest tactical dossier ever on Messi before the 2011 Champions League final –
to no avail.
Surrounded: Manchester United tried to stifle Messi in the 2011 Champions League final – but to no effect
And how many times have managers sent out their sides demanding
military-style discipline, instructions to flood the midfield and disrupt the
supply lines, only to see their well-intentioned plans torn to shreds
If anyone does have a watertight formula for stopping the
Messi express, then they haven’t shared it. Perhaps it’s down to guess work or
good fortune. Or maybe Efe Ambrose knows the secret.
In the run up to the game he said: ‘He won’t pose many problems
Fighting words, but will they prove foolish come ten o’clock