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Passion and Law

Just as Atlético Madrid's Sergio 'Kun' Agüero seemed to be taking over the world as we know it, his little compatriot and international rooming partner Leo Messi decided that he'd like to stay on the fingertips of Spain's keyboard judges for at least another week. Messi appears to be a humble, modest soul, but another rather unconvincing performance against Sporting Lisbon in midweek (Barça won 3-1, ending their goal drought) meant that he was again obscured by the shadow of Agüero, who scored twice in Atlético's 0-3 drubbing of PSV in the midweek Champions League tie, and who generally terrorized his Dutch hosts every time the ball came near him. Messi's performance in Barça's 1-6 annihilation of newly-promoted Sporting Gijon was a little wave to the public, a little reminder that said 'Hellooo. I'm still here'.

Barça's glut of goals came like the proverbial flood after the drought, but in truth it had been coming for some time. Barça have not been playing poorly, but were just being alarmingly slipshod in front of goal. In the end, someone cops it, and it was Sporting who had the misfortune to be on the end of the confidence booster that the victory over the other Sporting (Lisbon) proved to be.

On the other hand, Atlético continued to bang 'em in this weekend, scoring four for the second consecutive home league game, the last victim having been Málaga on the opening day. Agüero got the first - another header to add to the surprising amount he scores, given his lack of height - and as in midweek his contribution to the slaughter was both exciting and enthusiastic. Agüero, in spite of being the latest in a long line of players forced to carry around their necks the albatross of the new Maradona label, was still something of a rumour in northern European circles, a name without a definite face or a collection of best moments on YouTube. Now he's destined to become a household name and have his six-year contract to Atlético bought out by Manchester City at the end of the season.

When Atlético bought him from Independiente in 2006, the €20 million (never confirmed) that they paid for him were described as a safe investment. Agüero had made his debut for Independiente at the age of 15, making him the youngest pup to ever play in the Argentine league, a distinction held by Maradona up to that moment in 2003. He came from a longish line of 'culo bajo' (stocky/low arsed) players - an epithet applied to him by the ever eloquent Jorge Valdano - but one that was not used casually. This adjective belonged to an elite that included Romario, Maradona, Messi, Garrincha and Puskas, to name but a few.

As yet, there have been few doctoral studies conducted into the effect of a low arse on the ability of a footballer to be above the average, but in the case of the two current culos bajos, the evidence is overwhelming. Agüero, like the early Maradona, has that ability to set off in one direction at supersonic speed, only to either stop dead and send opposing players hurting in the opposite direction or to suddenly change tack with a brutal mix of muscle and g-force. Cloggers can only stop them if they can catch them.

Maradona, on the short walk from the Argentinean team-bus to the national stadium in Lima for a 1986 World Cup qualifier, was asked to comment by a local journalist on the fact that Peru's defensive midfielder, Reyna, had promised to 'annul' him. Maradona looked down into the microphone. 'Nadie me anula' he replied. (No-one stops me). That was very true, with the noble exception of Italy's Claudio Gentile. Can anyone stop Leo Messi and Sergio Agüero? Well it's difficult, but there seems to be a new subtext to the obsessive amount of attention these two are receiving in Spain this season.

One obvious reason for all the attention, apart from the fact that both players are probably up there in the world's top five, is that comparisons between the two this season will make good copy at a time when La Liga is leaking some of its glamour to the fatter cat English Premier League. Messi, you may recall, was accused recently by his low-bottomed predecessor of being un chupón (greedy) and representing the new sporting body known as 'Deportivo Messi'. In the same breath, Maradona also added the damning rider that Javier Mascherano was a much more complete player at the present moment, and that his contribution to the Argentine cause was much greater.

Debatable stuff, and it's had the blogs singing, of course. Is Messi beginning to change direction so much that he no longer knows his way home? Will Agüero go the same way, so that the two eventually fade, like Pablo Aimar before them?

Maradona is being a little more cautious in his public announcements regarding Agüero of course, since the player is destined in a few months' time to become Maradona's son-out-of-law. The seed of the union between Agüero and Giannini (daughter of the Hand of God) may prove one day to be the world's greatest culo-bajo player, be it male or female. The genetic possibilities seem promising. But I digress. The other factor in this Messi-Agüero issue is related to the crucial question of whether this type of player, in the long term, is actually a bringer of success or a short-term crowd pleaser, symbol of a thousand false dawns. There's a nice line in a song by the Spanish band Jarabe del Palo which goes 'Pasión y ley/Dificil mezcla' (Passion and law - a difficult mix). That sums up the Spanish very well, because although they can be, on the surface at least, fairly anarchic and anti-authoritarian, they're also quite conformist - as if their natural tendency to go against the grain has bred in them a neurotic need for stability. It's a paradox that never fails to both entertain and mystify, but at least it explains how the same country managed to catapult Julio Iglesias and then forget Paco Peña, or in footballing terms (respectively), pair Fernando Morientes and David Villa. The Spanish reverence for outrageous talent, and the stream of creative geniuses who have flooded the arts cannot mask the craving here for systems that work, for basics that deliver.

For all that a certain generation of Spaniards become all misty-eyed about the El Salvadorean maverick 'Mágico' González, who played for Cádiz in the 1980's (when they could drag him out of the bars), and whom many current bar-flies still rate as the best player they ever saw, Alfredo Di Stéfano is still the trusted model of the all-time great, the utility man who could score goals, defend, create from midfield and then go home to finish the plumbing. The old and grumpy Di Stéfano has publicly declared his admiration for his compatriot Messi, but it is unlikely that he would have enjoyed playing with him, and vice-versa. Too many leaders spoil the broth? Possibly.

Agüero seems destined to be included in this debate before long, if only because his team, Atlético Madrid, are famous for their eternal promise and then their failure to deliver. It was why Fernando Torres got out, in the end. Now it's looking rosy again, with a Champions League campaign off to an excellent start and two big league wins under their belt. Agüero, as was expected to eventually happen, has come of age in the absence of Torres, and is leading a pack of players who look, on paper at least, to be capable of challenging for something this season. Diego Forlán, Luis García, Simao and Sinama-Pongolle (who scored twice against Recreativo this weekend) forms a decent backing-troupe, but doubts still abound as to the squad's real defensive depth.

Villarreal still look to have a better-balanced team, at least as far as mounting a league challenge is concerned. And if they are to mount one, it could be that they will have to chase a Real Madrid side who are also inspired by a new(ish) Argentine, in this case Gonzalo Higuaín. 85% of Real Madrid's respondents to a vox-pop survey last week thought that he should be in the side, at the expense of the great god Raúl. Times change. Higuaín then went on to prove that such faith in him is not ill-considered with a fine performance in the win at Santander. What is it about the Argentinean air that it continues to produce all these players? But back to 'Kun' Agüero, a talent that could surpass Messi's if only because the new kid on the block is a better finisher. Indeed, Agüero sometimes looks like Romario in the box, able to suddenly burst free of players from a standing position and finish with hardly a pull-back of the leg, in an instant. Then again, like Messi, he likes to drop deep to collect the ball and to see what might happen if he just starts to run with it. He carries the ball for less time than Messi, and prefers to create room for himself by dint of a lethal combination of dribbling, a short pass and then a burst into space, but then again he is not surrounded by so many other talented players as Messi.

That may indeed be the latter's problem, as Barça sometimes look slightly confused as to who is supposed to be holding the baton. In Atlético's case, the question seems to have been firmly answered this season. As such, Agüero is becoming a folk-hero in certain parts of Madrid, whilst the first doubts over Messi's contribution to the general cause have begun to surface.

In the end, Maradona's point about Messi being too much of an individualist needs to be taken seriously, if only because it focuses us on the difficult balance that exists in football between establishing a system that works, but then allowing certain players the freedom to roam. The history of the game is littered with examples that failed to function. What is interesting, however, is the question of whether the 'individualist' (Maradona's chosen word) is able to define his team's style, so to hell with the system.

Johan Cruyff, Eric Cantona, George Best, Ronaldinho in his prime - those are good examples. The success they brought more than compensated for their occasional aberrations. At the moment, Messi does not define the style of play that Barcelona try to adopt. Therein lies the problem. At Atlético, Agüero does. He's been given the baton, and all eyes are focused on what might happen if he can spend a whole season without dropping it.


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