Thwacked by Messi.. but what happens next?

AN assessment of the Champions League wreckage at the Nou Camp, published in today’s Camden New Journal:

THE first leg of Arsenal and Barcelona was like an epic movie, a sports drama worthy of the Hollywood treatment.

Arsenal’s hobbling underdogs clinging desperately to the brilliant powers of Barcelona, ignoring injury like Pele in Escape To Victory to pull off an impossible comeback.

Shame then, as we all know, sequels are never as good as the original. In this one-sided mismatch, Barcelona so efficiently put Arsenal’s always unfulfilled Champions League dream to sleep for another year that they hardly had to muster an attack in the second-half. It was all over by half time: Lionel Messi thwacking and chipping in a hat-trick to cancel out Nicklas Bendtner’s surprise opener.

No disgrace for Arsenal, especially with a side missing Van Persie, Gallas, Fabregas and Arshavin. The better team won. It would have been a travesty, which only Arsenal fans would have enjoyed, had they not. Messi scored his fourth on Tuesday with an injury-time nutmeg. It was relevant only to him and his disciples, another reason simply for the writers in the Nou Camp’s heavens to salivate some more.

Another chance for him to be compared with Maradona or Picasso or Presley or Gandhi, or whatever great historical figure they could think of before their deadlines.  Messi, by the tone of Wednesday’s coverage, is as important as all those. A brow-beaten cynic might say: Sure he’s good – but you have to do more than roast Mikael Silvestre and flip the ball over Manuel Almunia to achieve true greatness in football. He’s on the way, but I’d still take Thierry at his peak.

Amid the Messi messiah-building, who could not have been excited when Bendtner, that Adebayoresque curate’s egg of a striker, who blends inept finishing with vital goals, poked Arsenal ahead for the first time in the tie on 19 minutes

Time stood still. These times are what the Champions League are all about, and what teams like Spurs crave to be a part of. The most unlikely next six weeks panned out in front of Bendtner’s excited eyes: Mourinho, Inter, Champions League final, a return to the Bernabeu. Unfortunately, reality kicked in almost as soon as the blur seeped into clarity: Messi bulldozing the back of the net.

There were lessons for Arsene Wenger in Spain. That Abou Diaby needs a good shake, shape up or ship out. That Tomas Rosicky still fails to conjure up the Mozartian art that he always promises. That Silvestre is the ultimate last resort. That Fabregas must be retained at all costs.

Messi gave the Gunners the chance to sweep all of those concerns under the carpet. The reason we lost, legend will have it, was not because Arsenal were ill equipped but because of Messi. It’s true he was the architect and executor of Barcelona’s triumph but Arsenal must guard against his display as an easy excuse. They must strive to find a way to be as good as him, not to stand in awe and ask for his shirt as a souvenir.

The Champions League is the greatest forum of them all, whatever the Spurs fans say as they make their way to Wembley on Sunday, fighting for the forgotten relic of the FA Cup. Playing in the Nou Camp is the pinnacle. Arsenal must now find a way of winning there as well.

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