Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Messi not the only star set to shine in semi-final clash

The intense debate surrounding precisely how a Chelsea side stripped of a natural left-back will cope with Barcelona winger, Lionel Messi, in tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg, is becoming farcical.

I refer to Lionel Messi as "Barcelona winger" rather than the laughably over-used descriptions of "genius" and "footballing wizard" because that is precisely what he is. He is a very talented winger, that's for sure, but (and this may surprise you if you've been reading the papers this week) he is actually a real human being. He doesn't have magical powers. I know this is shocking but let's be honest, Messi is a 21-year-old kid who is the star attraction at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

How Chelsea fare in Barcelona tonight does not depend upon their ability to keep the winger quiet. Messi only has such an impact because he is surrounded by a team which sticks religiously to an attacking philosophy (although, if Chelsea do have anything to worry about it's that Pep Guardiola has brought a disciplined defensive edge to a side previously undone by individual egos). Throw Messi in the Bolton starting line-up and the likelihood is that he wouldn't be able to display the kind of performances which have made him superhuman in the eyes of the media.

For Chelsea to succeed against Barcelona, they will need to focus upon the overall philosophy of the Spanish side, rather than concentrating upon the individual cogs that make it work. The entire Chelsea back line will have a job to do tonight, not just Jose Bosingwa, who has been handed the task of keeping Messi quiet. After all, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry can't exactly be ignored. Furthermore, the interplay between midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi will need to be quashed, and the attacking threat of right-back, Dani Alves, must be diminished.

For all Barcelona's talent, and, let's be clear about this, talent is something the side does not lack, Chelsea will provide them with a stern test. Chelsea have players worth boasting about themselves and one player springs to mind instantly in this context: Didier Drogba. The forward has experienced mixed fortunes against Barcelona, with a magnificent equaliser in the 2006/2007 competition a perfect way to exact revenge for his sending off the year before.

Maybe Barcelona fans should be the ones worrying about individual stars in the side their team will face tonight. After all, if Drogba manages to find the back of the net tonight, he will become the only footballer ever to have scored in six consecutive Champions League matches.

Drogba's importance to Chelsea cannot be underestimated. His presence is felt not only on the pitch, where his physical dominance more often than not causes defenders real trouble, but also off the pitch. Drogba has the ability to fire up the Chelsea faithful with a single gesture and this charisma, something which Guus Hiddink recently spoke of, is as important as his goalscoring ability.

Bear in mind that I haven't yet mentioned Frank Lampard, who was unlucky not to have been recognised by the PFA Player of the Year shortlist this season, or Michael Essien, who many Chelsea fans regard as one of the best footballers in the world, and it seems clear that tonight's match is far from a foregone conclusion. Football betting on this one is likely to favour the Spanish side but rule out Chelsea at your peril.

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