Another chapter of the Lionel Messi legacy was last night etched into history. The mercurial Argentine became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League match, helping Barcelona to a 7-1 second leg victory over a less than inspired Leverkusen side. While Arsenal put on a master class in how to over-turn a first leg deficit, Leverkusen showed us exactly how you do not go about it.
Barcelona had already amassed a 3-1 advantage from the first leg, leaving the German outfit with nothing but a shoestring of hope to hold onto for their trip to the Camp Nous. Leverkusen turned up and did little more. They were void of belief and overly conservative. Barcelonas passing in the opening minutes of the game was short of their fabled best, but this did not seem to encourage Leverkusen in the slightest. They had adopted a rigid 4-4-1-1 shape from the outset and were consistently out flanked by Barcelonas marauding wingbacks.
While I am sure the news of Michael Ballacks absence in particular hurt the Leverkusen cause, what exactly did they have to lose? Their attempts to close the space between the midfield and defence often ended up in a slightly askew line of eight that did nothing but give space to Xavi to launch calculated passes into the space behind. Lionel Messi moved majestically from attack to midfield and back, leaving the Germans unsure about his position at any given moment.
When Barcelona and Messi are on their day, there is little the majority of clubs can do to stop them. Messi was in a record-breaking mood last night, no doubt spurred on by his first international hat trick last week for Argentina. Recently certain coaches in Spain seem to have adopted an academic approach, when it comes to handling Barcelona. Some of these approaches have even been vaguely successful. Emerys’ Valencia started two defensively minded left sided players in order to halt the runs of Dani Alves. In turn, this threw Barcelona off their axis and Valencia managed to gain a lead twice before eventually drawing. The failure came when Valencia simply did not have enough depth to respond when Gaurdiola eventually did tweak the formula. Bielsa flooded the pitch when his Bilbao side faced them. He then abandoned shape in favour of a rigid man marking system and again the result was a draw. Jose Mourinho has probably used up countless notebooks devising strategies to deal with Guardiolas men and has had mixed results against them.
The point is that in Spain they have made an effort to find a solution, to what Sir Alex Ferguson has dubbed “everyone’s problem”. Some have been successful though most have not. Leverkusen attempted to save face here and probably got what they deserved in the end. At best, Leverkusen showed a faux pragmatic approach and never even looked like they intended on attempting to get back into the tie. Their central midfield duo of Rolfes and Bender were guilty of siting too deep and isolating the forward line. Deploying a nonsensical conservative strategy is certainly not going to plunder three away goals against a side as good at retaining possession as Barcelona are. I am not saying that Leverkusen could have won this tie, but they could at least have tried. Even before the kick-off it was Barcelona who lined up as the team that were about to force the issue. Their defence took position within three bands of grass of the half way line. All of the factors that made Arsenals endeavours so attractive the night before were completely bereft of this Leverkusen side. If they were due a report card on their performance here that familiar, “must try harder,” line would certainly come into play.