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MARTIN SAMUEL: Hiddink surrenders moral high ground with total eclipse

29 Apr 2009 10:25:06

MARTIN SAMUEL: Hiddink surrenders moral high ground with total eclipse

It is a bit of a myth about the Dutch and total football. A coach plays total football when he has total footballers. Guus Hiddink, manager of Chelsea, has athletes. Great athletes, undoubtedly. Some of the greatest in modern football, in fact, but not the sort of team that could come to the Nou Camp and, as Hiddink promised, fight fire with fire. Jose Bosingwa stifled the threat of Lionel Messi in the Nou Camp So Hiddink did not fight fire with fire. He fought fire with five hulking great individuals strung across midfield. He fought fire by removing Frank Lampard midway through the second half and introducing another defensive player, Juliano Belletti. He fought fire with desperate, heroic defence. Not so much total football as a total blanket thrown over the most attack-minded team in Europe. Chelsea even banished the magnificent Lionel Messi to the periphery, his brilliance showing only in tiny flashes, a run here, a dink there. The widely predicated destruction of Jose Bosingwa, deputising as left-back for thesuspended Ashley Cole, did not take place. Chelsea took out Messi's supply line and left him to starve on the flank. He was not taken off, but he could have been. Lionel Messi trudges off disconsolately after Barcelona were held to a 0-0 draw by Chelsea Genius is a fleeting gift. In a footballer those peak years, theperiod in which a man can claim to be the greatest player in the world,passes all too quickly. How long did Ronaldinho have at the top? The years could be counted on one hand.He had to make the most of them, and did: the World Cup in 2002, the Champions League in 2006. If this is indeed Messi in his prime, if he has, as some claim, usurped Cristiano Ronaldo's place at the summit this season, he needs to make the great games, the biggest games, count. Here one passed him by. Messi has never scored against English opposition and that record remained intact. This is not to tempt fate. True, Ashley Cole specialises in exceptional performances against the very best and his epic confrontations with Ronaldo are some of the mostmemorable performances of his career, but only a fool would rule out a very Messi Barcelona revival at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday. Josep Guardiola's team will arrive needing a goal to progress and goals have not been a weakness this season. In the Champions League they have 29, 10 more than Chelsea, and their three strikers - Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o - have outscored Chelsea's PremierLeague tally on their own. Crunch time: Florent Malouda feels the full force of a challenge by Carles Puyol Even so, they will all - and this includes Messi - be feeling alittle less cocksure after this. It was not that Barcelona or theirdiminutive heartbeat were ordinary - they, and he, can never be that -more that the world was waiting for him to inspire a Barcelona victoryand it never came. Messi was denied by a Chelsea team that wasresilient and obstinate and his supposed patsy, Bosingwa, was not thefool he has been made out to be. This is the first time this season that Barcelona have failed to score at the Nou Camp and if Chelsea are as expertly deployed next week, they will remain hard to break down. Yes, there might be more gaps because Chelsea will have to make the game, too, and cannot rely on the counter-attack and the long ball up to Didier Drogba. But if Hiddink masterminded this stalemate, one must have faith that he will possessan equally cunning plan to win the return. Lucky escape: Bojan heads over the bar with Barcelona's best chance of the night Some of the moral high ground was surrendered with a 4-5-1 set-upanchored to caution, but there was always the suspicion that Hiddinkwas being disingenuous with his vow to come to Barcelona and attack. Afterall, when he was manager of Russia, he left out a number of his bestplayers for a match at Wembley in the hope of stealing a draw. Enlarge Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink and Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola watch events unfold in the Nou Camp Onthat occasion he lost 3-0; but Chelsea have better players than Russiaand they can handle the demands of a strategy of brinkmanship. Naturally, there were some narrow escapes and, on points, Barcelona would have been ahead in just about every round. But that does not preclude Chelsea's chance of landing a knockout punch on their own territory. Didier Drogba came close here, one on one, with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, and Michael Ballack nearly scored with a header from a free-kick, which all Chelsea's opponents fear. So what happened to Messi? Well, despite it being a quiet night,there remained a hint of danger when he was on the ball. As with allgreat players, it was not so much what was happening as what could happen, at any moment, at any given second. Chelsea were brilliant in their efforts to repel him, but never comfortable with the task, Bosingwahandled him like a very big, very expensive firework that has failed toignite - carefully, but always prepared for a flickering of the fuseand a mighty explosion. None came, except from the crowd, outbursts of indignation erupting repeatedly every time Chelsea committed a foul, which was quite regularly, even if Barcelona milked such moments for all they were worth. Instead of goals, we saw glimpses of Barcelona's potential, not least when Messi played a lovely little chip on the run to put Daniel Alves in on the right, or held off the frantic attention of Florent Malouda to complete a dribble from right to left that setup Barcelona's best chance of the first half. If there is to be a year-defining performance in this semi-final from Messi we still await it. Chelsea must hope he is not preparing to show his best side to London.


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