Published On: Mon, Mar 11th, 2013

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and his inability to break the Italian defence

His paternal family hails from the Italian city of Ancona, his ancestor; Angelo Messi immigrated to Argentina in 1883. Maybe Lionel’s old lady told him stories of Italy, which subconsciously prevents him from playing at his best when he faces Italian sides. That, or Italian sides defend better than any other in Europe. Or, the reasons are deeper, different.

Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, and possibly the best ever, finds Italian opposition daunting, impervious. Italian football enthusiasts celebrate with song and dance a statistic, which is partially irrelevant, yet one that brings the average Calcio fan immense joy. What is this statistic I speak of? Lionel Messi is yet to score against Italian opposition from open play.

Messi has scored thrice, all against AC Milan, all from the penalty spot. But, with having played nine games against Italian teams, Messi is waiting to celebrate his first goal from open play.

There are reasons to explain his inadequate lethality against the Italians. But, they usually get misplaced in the over hyped noise which prevents the exercise of reason. Messi has played in nine games against Italian teams thus far, but of these nine, five are against Milan, three are against Inter and one is against Udinese from way back in 2005, when Messi was all of eighteen, playing only in his third Champions League game.

We could safely exclude Udinese as part of the test sample. But, that would not be fair, because it was the foul on him that led to Ronaldinho’s opener in that game against the Zebrette. His dribbling skills wowed the opposition, but his immaturity caused understandable wastefulness in front of goal.

Years later, Messi faced the best Inter side in decades. Inter closed down spaces, played with two pivots in midfield and left limited room between the lines. Even if Messi managed to get past the pivots, the centre-backs awaited him readily. Inter were physical, fast and perfectly organized. They were a beast neither Barcelona nor Messi had previously played or prepared for.

Messi has played Milan five times since last season. Massimiliano Allegri gave Messi special attention, often by double man-marking him. The tactic reduced Messi’s threat in front of goal, but opened space for his team-mates. Messi gladly accepted this sacrifice. He facilitated three goals that Barcelona scored; he assisted Pedro at the Nou Camp in 2011, set up Xavi Hernandez with an orgasmic through-pass in the return leg and forced Mark van Bommel into scoring an own goal in the same game. He was a constant creative source for Barcelona, but was successfully choked in the third meeting at the San Siro in March 2012. Apart from that, as I previously mentioned, he converted three penalties against the club.

Italian teams have traditionally and historically been masters of tactics and organizational play. In the last decade, they have suffered the brutality of English football. But, dealing with skill is not alien to the Italians. They knew that Messi likes to play between the lines. They knew that a high-line would play into his speed, causing him to butcher them with his inexplicable pace. They knew he is less effective on the wings and has limited response to physicality. They, the Italians, successfully implemented tactics to make him less influential.

Messi’s worst performance against an Italian team was seen in the first leg of the round of 16 this season, at San Siro. Milan played very deep and very narrow, forcing him to drop into midfield. They allowed him space and no other, invited him to attack them while blocking possible passes, and when he did run at them, he was immediately tackled. Again, the lines were closer, the tackles more frequent. Messi’s confidence and his body took a sound beating. He is an exceptional football player, but he is no god.

Lionel Messi, week-in week-out plays in a league, in a country wherein defending is considered anti-football. He is not acquainted; neither does he regularly face opposition which gives him special attention, or tailors their defending around his weaknesses. Spanish defenses are open, play a dangerously high-line and are tactically limited.

His performances in Europe tell a different story. He constantly finishes as top scorer in the competition. That is true, but must be seen in context. Majority of his goals have come against German and English teams. The Germans do not flaunt their defensive skills or that tactical discipline the Italians pride themselves in, whereas English sides don another cape in Europe while being recklessly irresponsible in their domestic league. Messi faced his fair share of troubles against English defenses as well, scoring in his eleventh game against English opposition, after which his name was often seen on the scoreboard.

Italian defenses and teams do not have one-way of defending. The three sides he has faced have defended differently. Heck, Milan have defended differently this season when compared to last season. The evolutionary pattern is hard to study, harder to predict. The preparation consequentially suffers.

Messi may/may not score from open play against Italian oppositions, but that does not invalidate his input thus far. His inadequacy in front of goal has not prevented Barcelona from scoring.

On the contrary, his inadequacy in front of goal has enabled Barcelona to score from elsewhere, with him being the provider at times. Messi’s performances against Italians cannot, and should not be gauged through myopic lens of his goal-scoring record from open play, but rather from his influence upon the game. His influence is lesser, only in comparison to his otherwise galactic standards. But, it is still impressive. The Italians will make it harder for him, only because they are that bloody good at what they do.

Follow Rajath Kumar on Twitter @rajathkumar. You can read his work on his AC Milan blog titled Milan and Me; The Love Affair.

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