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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday


A classic clásico!

A classic clásico! There haven't been many of those to the pound in the last few years, give or take a pig's head or two, or the occasional exhibition of Ronaldinho magic.

Then again, it would inaccurate to say that Barcelona v Real Madrid (or vice-versa) has been boring in the last few years. It's rarely that.

But Saturday's game was unique in the history of the clash because of the circumstances which preceded it. Both sides had approached the game with their tails between their legs, due to their elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich and Liverpool during the week.

Neither of the Spanish giants was disgraced - in terms of their performances, and indeed, amongst all the bluster people have forgotten that Barça actually won the game at Anfield!

Madrid lost 2-1, but having conceded a goal in 9.9 seconds, with Capello's advice of 'Whatever you do, don't concede an early goal' still ringing in their ears, the task became something of an uphill one. But a miss is as good as a mile. They're out, and only Valencia remain. Their subsequent pairing with Chelsea is a fascinating one.

So there was a lot hanging on the outcome of the Camp Nou clásico. The hosts needed to rediscover their self-belief, and show the world that what Gudjohnsen had said about their lack of team spirit was untrue, and Madrid had one last chance to derail the Catalans and put themselves more squarely into the dogfight.

Some also saw it as Capello's final fling, since a win or a decent performance would at least save his skin until the end of the season. Neither was Rijkaard immune from similar speculation, since a defeat would have sapped morale to a dangerously low level.

In the end, Barcelona must be thinking that the gods are on their side this year, at least as far as the league title is concerned. 2-3 down, 10 men and ninety minutes gone, Messi's equaliser changed the complexion of the table yet again, by keeping Madrid at arm's length and then framing the Sunday game in which relegation-threatened Nastic beat Sevilla - who, had they won, would have gone three points clear. But Sevilla also had a tough week, held 2-2 at home in the UEFA Cup, in a game in which they largely struggled.

Three days later and they simply looked jaded, despite the prize on offer. No team seems to have quite that extra push this year, that extra spark that fuels a sprint into a convincing lead.

Anyway, vaya partidazo (what a great game!) as they say here. I watched the game with a couple of English guys, one a Barça fan and the other a Racing Santander supporter.

Messi was the topic of much of the conversation. Not only because of his historic hat-trick in front of a 98,000 crowd, but because of his ability to seemingly pass through spaces that to all intents and purposes do not exist. He runs with the ball seemingly glued to his left foot, disappears at speed into a crowd of opposing players, then emerges at the other end like a silent-movie trickster, darting and flitting at unnatural speed, virtually unstoppable.

Like Maradona, he has that indefinable ability to make you think that if he chooses to keep the ball, no-one can actually take it off him. Poor Michel Salgado must have been dreaming of retirement at times during the match, and of how wonderful it would be to never have to face this little demon again.

Of course, Messi does not possess even half of Maradona's physical strength, and it is largely his ability to simply steer clear of challenges that keeps him on his feet and in the game. You also get the feeling with Messi that one really big clout from a defender is likely to send him hobbling to the changing-rooms. It's the only thing at the moment that stands between the little Argentine and immortality.

Then again, he wasn't really the man-of-the-match. That badge belongs to Guti, the mother of all enigmas. He should form some kind of society with Ivan de la Peña and Juan Román Riquelme (now back in Argentina).

They should call it 'The men who should have been great' - the men whose psychological make-up prevented them from ever really climbing up onto the podium of the gods. This is Guti's twelfth season with Madrid, and all he has to show for it (apart from the odd trophy) is a measly thirteen international caps. As they say, he must be doing something wrong.

He wasn't on Saturday night though. I know that I called him 'crap' in this column a few weeks ago, but I was referring more to his attitude than to his ability.

Guti is one of a small elite of Spanish midfielders who are considered by the press as 'vertical', one of a set of magical high-approval words in Spanish football vocabulary. This particular epithet refers less to Guti's ability to stand straight than to his tendency to always move forward with the ball, straight as an arrow into enemy territory.

Guti, despite his slight physique, is like Messi - a challenger of men. He differs in style, however, by his tendency to always seek the space which the opposing midfielders have left momentarily unguarded, and through which he either attempts to run - rather like a rabbit pursued by a pack of hounds - or through which he attempts to thread the ball, often hard, low and perceptively. He also has an uncanny ability to suddenly change the direction of play.

It's no coincidence that Van Nistlerooy looks twice the player when Guti's around. Instead of dropping deep and feeding off scraps, never the Dutchman's strength, the ball is suddenly arrowing to his feet whenever Guti is in the vicinity, or just given a slight angle to invite him to turn and take on the marking defender.

Other teams' supporters harbour a particular dislike for Guti because his 'verticality' almost always results in him pushing the ball slightly too far in front as he picks up speed (as opposed to the Messi 'glue' tactic), inviting defenders to slide in. Guti then flies into the air with the greatest of ease, nose-diving to the ground like a pheasant full of shot, then rolling several yards like a stunt-performer on final-day rehearsal. He has invariably been fouled (Marquez subjected him to a passable version of common assault on Saturday night) but he always makes sure that we know about it.

But on his day, there is no better left-sided midfielder in La Liga. Madrid's various managers have rarely trusted him to carry the weight of the team's creative department during the last twelve years, probably because of his legendary inconsistency and his ability to invariably say the wrong thing to the press, at the wrong time.

He never seems to have quite recovered from his early days of fame in the late 1990's, when he discovered that his new girlfriend was in fact a transvestite. Not that one wishes to be transvestist in any way, but it did take Guti an alarmingly long time to find out.

It also seems to have taken him an alarmingly long time to find out that when he decides to control the destiny of a game, he is perfectly capable of doing so.

Guti, like all sensitive souls, loves to be loved. If you put him in the starting line-up, you send out a message to both the player and the opponents. Capello's, in this case, was that Madrid were going to make a go of it, that they were intending to play their way to three points, instead of just hustling for them.

Circumstances seem to be shaping the Italian's thinking, moving him sideways from his dogmas. First Beckham, then Cassano. Neither played in the clásico (Becks was injured and Cassano stayed on the bench) but the latter looked Real's best player when he came on in the second half against Bayern.

Quality will impose itself in the end, if it's given the chance. Madrid took the game to Barça, even when the hosts had eleven men on the field, and they looked so much the better for it.

Diarra did a perfect vigilante job for Guti, releasing him from defensive duties and allowing him to get more forward, where he does the damage. Gago also played well, doing a lot of the dirty work, and keeping it simple but effective. For once, the balance looked right, but it may be too little, too late.

In the end though, it was Valdes who saved Barça, particularly when he denied Van Nistlerooy a hat-trick by saving three point-blank shots in the space of about two minutes. With Messi and Ronaldinho on the park, something can always happen, and at the last gasp the Argentine whipped in a left-foot shot across Casillas' body, and the title chase retained the status quo, more or less.

Are Barcelona going to win the title by default, or are they still the same potential dream-team underneath? The personnel is more or less the same as it was, and the squad still drips with quality. But the Eto'o issue just won't go away, and he was substituted at half-time on Saturday, despite having a hand in both the two opening goals.

The defence looks horribly shaky too, despite adding Thuram to the mix this season. Puyol blunders bravely about, but still looks like a defender short of some positional sense, Marquez is going through some sort of crisis, and neither Oleguer nor Belletti convince on the right-hand side.

When the stars were shining bright further up the pitch, it never seemed to matter, but now that their light seems to dim more often, the defence has been exposed to a deeper examination. Only Iniesta continues to be truly dependable.

Barça may yet come through, and the likelihood of the present squad staying together for next season surely depends on it. Whatever happens, they more than played their part in a memorable match on Saturday night. And after the more negative goings-on over the past fortnight, it's sure nice to conclude on a positive note this week.

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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