Wednesday 24 January 2018

James Lawton: Resurrection of Messi hints at more miracles to come

Rumours of Barca genius' demise have been greatly exaggerated


IF we have to measure the scale of Lionel Messi's resurrection, speculate once again on the range and the uniqueness of his extraordinary talent, we might start by freezing the expression which came to the face of his former mentor Pep Guardiola when he sat in the Nou Camp stand this week.

They say a picture can paint a thousand words. This one was football's equivalent of the Book of Genesis.

It had everything about a thinking man's appraisal of football genius. It had the wonder of a child but one in whom exceptional knowledge and insight had been bestowed.

In his years of pomp as the brilliantly innovative coach of the fabled Barca, Guardiola brought a superb invention to the modern game with the help of Messi (below). He made the little man his phantom striker, operating where the old dreadnoughts used to do.

But football is a bit like the best medicine in its ability to, sooner or later, produce antidotes and now Luis Enrique has drawn fresh life, and the old touch, by sending Messi wide of Luis Suarez and Neymar.


It was from the right touchline that Messi performed the sorcery that helped dispatch Manchester City from the Champions League and provoked the astonishment on the face of his old coach.

He launched a thousand nightmares in the psyche of that admirably committed professional James Milner.

Euphemistically, we might tell Milner he was undone by the manoeuvre known as the nutmeg. But he could argue that it was more like some dark, unfathomable magic.

What isn't in dispute as Messi (right) heads for a potentially thrilling mano-a-mano battle with his only serious contemporary rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, in Sunday's El Clasico is that he has demolished one by one the most serious doubts about his ability to extend his empire deep beyond his 28th birthday this June.

Remember the mill of questioning back at the first game of the new year? When Messi came off the bench with a sour face and did little to reverse the shocking advantage achieved by David Moyes' Real Sociedad?

His great Nou Camp days were allegedly over. Disaffected with the Barca hierarchy, at odds with the new coach, he was rumoured to be on the move.

He needed a new environment, a new challenge, maybe in the Premier League which had so long entertained absurd doubts about his ability to prosper on a bad night at Stoke City.

Instead, Messi has been anointed again in Barcelona on a night when City were ushered to the door like urchins banished from a society ball.

The worst of the suspicions about Messi's future were born, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Brazil, where the theory was that he was paying for the early hormone treatment aimed at aiding his growth.

The story, rampant when Messi was so perversely voted the player of the World Cup despite a series of, by his standards, pallid performances, this week didn't have the value of a plugged centavo.

Against City, Messi was complete in all his astonishing parts. The ball from the right which picked out Ivan Rakitic for his beautifully taken goal, after Suarez had cut the defence in two with a withering run, could not have been bettered with the help of radar.

Jamie Carragher made the novel distinction that maybe we can now say that, given his sub-Maradona impact on the World Cup, Messi can be enshrined as the greatest 'club' player in the history of the game.

But then, when we think about it, such a limitation of the view that a player is a player in all circumstances really doesn't do.

Certainly it was disdained by the declaration of Gary Lineker, who felt, first hand, the extraordinary impact of Maradona in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Lineker declared: "Messi is indisputably the greatest player ever to don a pair of football boots. Don't even attempt to argue the point. A measure of his greatness is that he makes world-class players like Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez look distinctly ordinary by comparison."

It says everything about the enduring quality of Messi, the outrageous reach of his talent, that high achievers can make such claims on his behalf.

Hopefully, though, there will still be some wider and deeper reservations in the matter of closing the door on such as Pele, Diego Maradona, George Best and Johan Cruyff - and perhaps the extraordinary man with whom Messi will duel on Sunday night.

At the Bernabeu, certainly, there will be no shortage of points of reference. Men like Ferenc Puskas and Zinedine Zidane, and, supremely, Alfredo Di Stefano made the great stadium the backcloth of many of their most spectacular deeds.

Indeed, the young Bobby Charlton, a travelling reserve when the Busby Babes took on the record-breaking Real, insists that one of his most imperishable memories is of sitting in the stand and watching Di Stefano.


"I was mesmerised," he recalled. "I couldn't take my eyes off him. I had never seen such a dominant player. I didn't believe then it was possible for one man to control almost everything a great team did.

"I thought, 'Who is this man? He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening'.

"Whenever he got in a good position in midfield it was the signal for the winger Gento to fly. He would go at a 100 miles an hour, Di Stefano would send the ball into his path, Gento would go bang and you just heard yourself saying, 'Oh, God, this is unbelievable'. It was pure revelation."

It was a different kind of sensation that the face of Guardiola expressed this week.

He didn't experience revelation but an old and reassuring astonishment.

It was that the greatest, most inventive talent he had ever encountered as a working football man was not only still vibrantly alive but, who knew now, perhaps even moving into a new dimension.

That, plainly, was the view of a much-lauded professional. At the very least it was an encouragement for the rest of us to believe that, amazingly, the best of Messi may yet be still to come.

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