Category Archives: How to stop Messi

Manchester United vs Barcelona – Champions League Final 2011 from Wembley

I was there in 2009 at Stadio Olimpico.  It was 0ne of the best experiences I have ever had as far as pre game fever goes – watching Barca fans singing on the Spanish Steps was surreal.  And then the game.  It’s all about moments.  If Ronaldo’s free kick had gone in in the first few minutes – Valdes just managed to keep it out – the game would have been very different.  It didn’t go in, and shortly thereafter Eto’o turned Vidic, scored and then United seemed to be lost.  That said, hard as it may be to believe, Sir Alex went into the final having constructed one of his very few bad game plans for a massive match.  Ronaldo himself said after the game that United had used bad tactics (yes, he is aggravating that way, but he was right).  Leading up to the game, I was telling a friend of mine that I hoped Sir Alex didn’t play it safe and start Ronaldo at striker like he had done against Arsenal in the second semi final a week before to such devastating effect.  Here was the flaw – he should have started Berbatov or Tevez at striker and kept Park on the bench.  Sylvinho was starting at left back in place of the suspended Abidal and Yaya Toure, the holding midfielder was starting at center back because Puyol had to move to the right back slot since Alves was suspended – and Sir Alex didn’t go after that back line.  He had Ronaldo – move him to the wing and Ronaldo would have destroyed Sylvinho.  Since Yaya was at center back instead of holding midfield with Busquets, he wouldn’t have been able to help out on Ronaldo as much.  Instead Sir Alex played Ronaldo down the middle where it was more crowded, where he wasn’t getting any service and where Busquets could help.  Park didn’t bother Sylvinho and that was it.  Without that United pressure that would have made Iniesta back track more, it was hard to then keep up with Barca in midfield.

So what happens tomorrow?

Putting aside moments of unlegislatable genius (read Messi or Iniesta or Giggs or Rooney), I believe that the game is going to be won based on how Michael Carrick plays.  Hard to pin it on one player, but he is going to be the bellweather for how the midfield battle plays out.  This is why.  If Carrick doesn’t have time on the ball, he tends to have a hard time making his killer passes.  That’s what happened last time.  So, if he plays well, I believe it will be because United is able to beat the high press that the Barca front six put on whenever they turn the ball over in the opponent’s half of the field.  If Carrick (read United) can start the first or second of three passes  for United when they get the ball (and force Barca to then fall back), United will beat Barca because they have superior athletes and superior team speed and it will make Barca have to then come at least 60 yards down each time to beat United.  Real Madrid used a variance of this length of field strategy during the second La Liga clasico this season – they hoofed it down the field and forced Barca to bring it 75 yards each time and pressed Barca from midfield.  Then either get lucky with one of your forwards getting on the ball one on one with the Barca backline or get a turnover and attack with speed.  I don’t think United should hoof it though because United does not have that in their DNA – to not try and play football.  A modified approach is what I’m suggesting.  Don’t panic and hoof the ball to Valencia or Chicharito at the earliest sign of pressure – make two safe passes to get it going at least 75% of the time.  It’s a delicate balance though, because you also don’t want to turn the ball over in your half to Barca.  That’s why it;s all about Carrick.  He usually receives the ball first from the backline.  If he can play the ball out to Giggs or Rooney then United is in business.  If not, United has to really take advantage of their chances – and they were very profligate against Schalke which is scary.  Barca won’t give them that many chances unless United is 2-0 up with 30 minutes to go.

Everyone has Barca as favorites and United the decided underdog.  I beg to differ on how forgone the conclusion is.  Barca may well win and may well put three past United.  That said, this Barca team is nowhere near as good as the one that beat United.  The best club team of all time – not by a long shot (read why later in the post).  And United have a stronger team and a better lead striker going into the game. Let me break down the matchups.

The Barca backline – Barca might have a similar problem as last time as, reportedly, Puyol is going to play left back moving Mascherano to center back.  Supposedly Guardiola is concerned about Abidal having only recently come back from surgery and that he won’t be ready to battle Valencia for 90 minutes.  Valencia is a strong man, apart from being fast.  Puyol absolutely shut Rooney down when he played at right back in 2009 – another reason United suffered since Ronaldo didn’t get many balls coming in from that wing.  I don’t think Puyol will find it as easy against Valencia.  Rooney loves the crossfield ball to an open Valencia who then gets to go one on one against left backs most of the time since the holding midfielder usually tries to stay close to Rooney, thus leaving Valencia in isolations.  Puyol himself hasn’t had that many games under his belt in the last six weeks.  Valencia should have a real chance at doing damage on this side.  Alves may be under less pressure and so able to create havoc down the right side because Park is not as dangerous offensively – especially since he’s going to have to pay attention to Messi on the left and center.  I feel sorry for Evra.  Finally, neither Pique nor Mascherano have the speed to handle Chicharito.  For all those who say this is the best team in the history of club football – puhlease.  With that defense?  Puyol is the only great defender in that lot.  And, sorry, but if you remove Messi from that squad, you have Valencia 2009-2010.  A wild card in United’s offense is if Giggs has time to join the attack against Barca’s backline.  Neither Alves, nor Mascherano, can handle him on the wing.  When Giggs goes down the left, Rooney will usually fade over to the left as well thus taking Mascherano and Busquets with him to that side.  Which leaves Pique having to potentially deal with Chicharito in the middle.  Pique is big, but Chicharito moves around very quickly and has surprising hops for a little guy.  It’s going to be a lot different for Barca this time because they have a real out and out striker in Chicharito to deal with – not Ronaldo.  Advantage: United

Midfield – United have their hands full.  That’s obvious.  I am going to be very interested to see how Messi and Rooney play.  Will Messi float to the middle and drop off like he did in 2009 and act as a decoy?  And will Rooney be forced to come deeper to help the midfield.  As in 2009, I think this is going to be decided by how Iniesta plays.  He was the Man of the Match for me in 2009, not Xavi.  He set up the first goal by taking on three United players before laying off to Eto’o and thereafter he terrorized United with his pace (you don’t realize how quick he is with the ball till you see him in person – United could just never catch up with him on the ball) and control.  He seemed to tire because of his on off injuries.  But he had the same situation in 2009 and came through in a big way.  I think United’s big concern is going to be if Giggs, in the playmaker role, plays like Barca 2009 as opposed to Chelsea 2011.  I am very dubious of Giggs being able to succeed in the playmaker role against Barca because I don’t think he will be able to create as much time on the ball to make passes.  He will be forced to dribble more and that will limit his effectiveness as a playmaker.  The battle is less about how United defend Barca’s midfield and more about how United’s midfield keep possession once they get the ball – as I said at the top.  Yes, Park Ji Sung will run and he will bother Messi, but I just don’t believe he will have as much of an impact on the outcome (again that’s assuming that Sir Alex plays a four man midfield with Rooney and Chicharito up front).  Advantage: Barcelona.

United’s backline: Villa must be hoping that he can use his experience to get the better of whichever of the da Silva twins starts at right back.  That will be absolutely huge because Evra, Vidic and Rio look up for this game.  So will Messi float, drop back in the center like in 2009 or stay down the right side?  I don’t think Barca can afford it this time, for a simple reason: no Eto’o and no Henry.  I’m sure Rio and Vidic are ecstatic that they don’t have to face those two and Messi and instead get to face an off form Villa and Pedro.  Henry literally broke Rio’s ankles in 2009 when Rio fell to the floor on an inside outside dummy, while Eto’o beat Vidic inside to score the first goal.  This is where Iniesta has to help Messi get the job done.  His speed and ability to run at defenders with the ball – which Xavi can’t really do – is why he is the one, and not Xavi, who Barca need against United’s superior foot speed.  The wild card for Barca is Pedro – he is a clutch scorer.  But, again, Vidic and Evra would rather face him than Eto’o.  Advantage: United.

One note.  Messi is not unstoppable.  United may not stop him tomorrow.  But the way you stop Messi is to put a speedy player on him and if you can, have that player pick him at midfield.  Pepe was choking Messi before he was red carded.  It’s why Guardiola didn’t have Messi going at Evra in 2009 after Evra shut him down in 2008.  Messi does not like going up against pace in midfield.  Speed gets neutralized when you get to the last 20 yards because that’s when you can’t get as close to him because of the fear of fouling close to or inside the box.  When he gets to the last third down the right, force Messi to the outside and take away the give and go.  You can only do that with a quick left back.  That’s the best chance you have to stop him when he gets deep.  If he is down the middle in the last third and is moving left, do not let him make the reverse pass to a diagonal run from Villa.  Mourinho was playing Messi that way, and it was working.  That’s when Barcelona resorted to that other technique they must teach at La Masia – acting.  But enough about stopping Messi – theoretical exercises are easy on digital paper.

After all those words and analysis, it boils down to one question – will concentration, discipline, defending as a unit and speed beat total football and a genius footballer?

I see two possible scores – if Barca scores first, it will be 3-1 Barca.  If United scores first, it will be United 2-1.  First score wins…..  Though I think that’s true, that is a bit of a waffle.

Here is what I feel.  United is a team that has suffered a lot of criticism this year (I can’t say I didn’t pile on as well – my prediction before the season to my United friend was that United would win the Champions League but would struggle to finish third in the Premier League).  Giggs has a scandal ongoing.  It’s Edwin’s last game.  They are still burning from Rome in 2009.  It’s at Wembley where United won its first European title in 1968.  Yes, Barca won its first European title at Wembley too.  But there is nothing similar when you consider what that title meant to United after Busby’s Babes died in the Munich plane crash.  United is going to die before they lose.  They will fight to the end.  And Barca has looked tired at the end of this year – Wenger himself made that point last week.  That’s why Pep has tried to get them some rest by not playing the front six for the last two games.  United will keep it close and then beat Barca in the last 20 minutes just like Arsenal did in the first leg of their matchup this year.  They will play Barca just like they played them in 2008, with patience, discipline and with an opportunistic streak.  Before the Champions League Final in 2009, the United end held up cards that spelled out “FOR SIR MATT”.  While you could say Wembley 2011 is even more so for Sir Matt and the Munich crash victims, it’s actually FOR ROME 2009.  I can’t wait.  This is better than the last day of school.

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Chelsea vs Barcelona: Semi final 2nd Leg Pre game prediction

I know what Barca did to Real Madrid on the weekend.  I know Messi is supposed to be the player of this generation.  I know Iniesta and Xavi are incredibly talented midfielders and Eto’o is one of the best strikers in the world.  But the only things that are matter are these:

Barca has the away goals shut out of Chelsea in its favor.  If Barca scores at least one goal, Chelsea needs to win the game.

Messi is going to be determined to show he is the best in the world after the performance Ronaldo put on today.

The game is being played at Stamford Bridge where the pitch feels smaller than the Nou Camp which means less room for Messi and company to play their football.

No Marquez and no Puyol in the middle.  That means Pique, who for all his game is a relative rookie, and Caceres in the middle with the mercurial Valdes behind them.

Eric Abidal got skinned by first Robben and then Ramos for the first goal.  Hiddink, if I were you, I’d start Kalou on the right.  Dani Alves on the right is at best an average defender.

Henry might not play due to a knee injury.

Hiddink is a scarily successful coach no matter the squad he has – and he has a tough, experienced, motivated squad playing at home.

Based on these factors, while I still think its going to be tight, I think Chelsea goes through.

Guus, this is what you need to do to win.  As I said in the prior post, (1) water the pitch well to slow Messi down.  (2) Start Kalou on the right and Malouda on the left.  Lampard in the middle.  Drogba up front.  Essien and Mikel holding midfielders.  If you go one down, then bring on Anelka up front in the second half for Mikel.  For now, Ballack needs to start on the bench.  (3) Make sure Cole doesn’t give Messi the sideline – funnel him inside and then have Essien pick him up.  Not Mikel who gives away too many fouls on the edge of the box.  If Messi tries to go to the middle as he did against Real Madrid, even better for you.  That’s when you have Essien man mark him with Mikel sitting in a holding position behind him.  (4) If Henry doesn’t start, I believe Keita or Busquets will play in holding midfield along with Yaya Toure to help out the two kids at the center of defense.  Resist the temptation to play Ballack even with the reduced Barca team speed if Henry is out.  Yes, he may be good for headers off set pieces, but that’s a luxury you can’t afford in this game.  (5) Make sure Chelsea pumps more diagonal balls into the box.  See how Barca was all at sea during the Real game with crossed balls – they scored both goals on balls like that.  Cech was wasteful with his long clearances straight to Valdes.  (6) Keep possession better than you did at Barca.  Don’t be so nervous.  Barca isn’t that strong at pressing.  You play in the EPL.  You can hang with Liverpool and Man U.  Why be so concerned about Barca’s pressure up the pitch.  Pass your way out.  You always have Drogba to hold the ball up.

Pep, this is what you need to do.  (1) If Henry is out, then play Iniesta down the left and start Keita and Yaya at holding mid behind Xavi, Eto’o and Messi.  Hold Chelsea first, give cover and confidence to Pique and Caceres and wait for Messi to deliver.  If it’s tough going, then bring on Bojan for Keita and push Eto’o wide.  (2) Score a goal.  In fact, score two.  Because I think that’s what you are going to need to win with the defense you have for this game. (3) Shave and get a decent tie.  (4) Start Messi going up the middle to confuse the crap out of Chelsea’s backline and then move him back to the right.

Prediction:  Chelsea 2 Barcelona 1

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How to stop Lionel Messi

Relatively straightforward in concept, but hard to do in reality unless you have the personnel.

First, water the pitch as much as you can.  That’s why Messi didn’t really get going against Chelsea at the Nou Camp in the first leg.  He couldn’t plant and cut with the pitch so wet.  Also, he couldn’t get the ball rolling naturally to use his usual feints to get the defender off balance.

Second, get a quick left back.  Messi didn’t get much change out of Patrice Evra against Manchester United last year.  He didn’t get much out of Bosingwa in the first leg either.  Quick defenders take away Messi’s main advantage of burning the left back one on one down the wing before turning for goal with the defender on his back and too many options for the center backs to deal with.  That’s when he either cuts in and blasts past the keeper or sets up late arriving Xavi and Iniesta or goes to the far post for Henry.  I bet he struggles against Ashley Cole though Ashley has lost a step since leaving Arsenal.  I’d even consider playing Bosingwa as a shadow for Messi.  He’d be more productive than Ballack was in the first leg.

Third, get him moving right to left parallel to the goal line.  Do not give him the wing and do not let him play a one two to get behind the left back on the wing.  That’s death.  As he cuts across, the defensive midfield player has to pick him up, the center half has to stay goalside of Eto’o for the diagonal run to receive the Messi reverse ball and the left back has to stay goalside and to the outside of Messi so that he cuts off the one two reverse to Messi.

Fourth, have disciplined center backs to mark Eto’o’s diagonal runs.  Let Messi have to take you on with a longer run.

Five, make him use his right foot.  He isn’t entirely left footed, but he doesn’t have long distance power in his left foot and is below average with his right foot.

If people think this is theoretical, pull out the tapes of Man U vs Barcelona from last year (yes, he was just returning from injury) and Argentina vs Brazil from the South American Cup.  That’s what happens when you put a fast marker on him and back that up with physical play on him and his teammates.  Messi doesn’t like it when he can’t blow by you.  Frustrate him and he’s easier to control.  Kicking him is not going to work.

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