Messi will sniff out any hint of Chelsea weakness, then strike
23:07 GMT, 14 April 2012
The first truly great team I watched
was the AC Milan line-up of the late Eighties and Nineties. They
dominated the game with five European Cup finals in seven years and had
great players such as Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten, Savicevic, Massaro,
Ancelotti, Donadoni, Desailly and Boban.
Just as importantly, they introduced
ideas that took the game to a new level. As a Manchester United trainee,
I remember marvelling at the level of aggression with which their back
four — Tassotti, Baresi, Costacurta and Maldini — pushed up as a unit.
I’d never seen that before.
Our youth coach, Eric Harrison, made
us watch the full 90 minutes of Milan destroying Lazio in one game. He’d
never used video to that extent before and he never did it again. But
he wanted to make sure we knew we were in the presence of something
Now, 20 years later, we are witnessing
in Barcelona, who face Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals this
week, the next great team. What defines a truly great team One that
not only win multiple European Cups but also redefine football with new
ideas, a new improved way of doing things. The level at which this
Barcelona side relentlessly close down opponents high up the pitch is
something I’ve never seen before. They win the ball back with the speed
of a gun. The term given for it in some coaching circles is
Out of this world: Barcelona and their stunning brand of football await Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals
Their two centre-backs, usually Carles
Puyol and Gerard Pique, sometimes collect the ball from their
goalkeeper on the touchline, opening up space like never before. And
their system of playing without a centre-forward allows Lionel Messi,
the greatest player of modern times and arguably all-time, to roam and
find the weakest link in any defence.
It leaves Chelsea with a monumental
problem in a two-legged semi-final. Because even at their best, they
won’t be good enough to beat Barcelona without unforeseen help.
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United have played Barca on four
occasions in recent times. I was in the squad in 2008, when we beat them
1-0 on aggregate in a two-legged semi-final, and in the dressing room
for the two Champions League finals we lost, in 2009 and last year. In
2008, Frank Rijkaard played Messi on the right wing which pinned him
down and allowed Patrice Evra, who is quick and agile, to go one-on-one
to stop him. Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-sung played on the wings to stop
Barca’s full-backs, and although we spent the two games in retreat, we
won a painful victory. But after that, Barca, under Pep Guardiola,
improved again and became a different proposition. They win the ball
back quicker and Messi is more central now, impossible to pick up.
United tried to be more aggressive in
the two finals but it just didn’t work — they were too good. We pressed
them well for 10 minutes and then they wore us out. And the 2009 United
team, in particular, were a great team with Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic,
Ferdinand, Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo, Giggs and Scholes at their peak. Last
May, Barcelona beat us 3-1 at Wembley but there was almost a resigned
tone afterwards when Rio Ferdinand admitted Barcelona had been the
better team. Sometimes you just have to say: ‘Wow.’
I don’t want to appear overly
pessimistic about Chelsea’s chances, but one of three things has to
happen for them to have a chance in this tie — and none of them is
directly in their control. First, Messi could get injured and be unable
to play. Secondly, Barcelona could lose their discipline and get someone
sent off. Thirdly, Barcelona are totally distracted by the ‘clasico’
league game with Real Madrid that takes place between the two legs
Dangerman: Lionel Messi gave Ashley
Cole the runaround in 2009 and will be a handful again for Chelsea
They are all long shots — and even
then Chelsea must be at their maximum to take advantage. They will have
to make it an English-style cup final, try to use their physical
presence against a smaller Barcelona team. That’s why I’d start with
Didier Drogba and try to exploit set-pieces.
The problem is that even if Chelsea win by two goals on Wednesday, I can’t see Barcelona not doing what they need to in the Nou Camp. That pitch feels huge and they utilise every inch. Messi is unplayable and Chelsea will have to stop the best three midfielders in the world, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas, to stop him getting the ball.
Messi will sniff out where Chelsea are weakest and play in those areas. He might try to find space between John Terry and David Luiz because Terry is not the quickest and Luiz is suspect to diving in. He might think Branislav Ivanovic, a tall centre-half playing at right-back, is vulnerable.
As Eric Harrison made me study Milan all those years ago, youth coaches everywhere will be telling their lads to watch Barcelona play this week. How they press and win possession back, how they have the courage to play football in all areas of the field. They may be a curse to English teams but we should remind ourselves as football fans that we’re lucky to be in the era of Barcelona.
Great support: Messi can rely on the likes of Cesc Fabregas
City lift-off came from Wigan win
From a week ago when Manchester City were dead and buried in the title race, there is suddenly a small element of pressure on Manchester United ahead of their game against Aston Villa.
People will point to the return of Carlos Tevez which has coincided with City scoring 10 goals in two matches but I think the real lift will have come from hearing about United’s defeat against Wigan on Wednesday.
A gap of eight points last Sunday morning is now down to two, although United have a game in hand.
Looking at City’s body language after their defeat at Arsenal, you didn’t feel they were capable of getting a string of results. They were always likely to beat West Bromwich at home, which they did, but Norwich is not an easy place to go to.
Wide open: Shaun Maloney's goal has breathed life into the title procession
To score six, as City did, is a result, in my opinion, of United losing three points at the DW Stadium. I’ve been in close-run title races and I know it does help when your rivals slip-up, particularly if it is unexpected.
We have to put it in context, though. It is only a glimmer of hope and if United win, as I expect them to against Villa, they will be five points clear with four games to go, which is a great position to be in.
United could be eight points ahead the next time City kick off if they beat Everton next Sunday.
Of course, Tevez is a fantastic player and his hat-trick will probably make City fans wish he had not gone walkabouts earlier in the season. If nothing else, it might have given Sergio Aguero a much-needed rest.
Distin gifted it to Liverpool
Sylvain Distin’s mistake for Liverpool’s equaliser was the killer moment at Wembley.
I expected Everton to be able to see the game out at 1-0 but Luis Suarez’s goal from Distin’s backpass turned into a problem for Everton because they couldn’t get back in the ascendancy.
Andy Carroll ended as the matchwinner — he is still not at 100 per cent but the confidence he will gain from scoring against Blackburn and now a cup winner at Wembley will be absolutely incredible.