For the uninitiated, this game is called Kabbadi. It is a sport which originated in India and is quite popular all over Asia now. In fact, the game recently held it’s first ‘World Championship’ which concluded around a week ago. In a match which completely missed the mainstream media frenzy, traditional rivals India beat Pakistan 58-24 to win the Championship. The point of the game is to ‘raid’ your opponent’s half of the ground, touch as many players as you can and get back to your own half without getting smothered as has happened above. Every player the ‘raider’ touches, gets you 1 point. So why all this on our football-mad blog?
Yesterday night, Jose Mourinho showed how to play Kabbadi against the greatest raider in World football at the moment. In Kabbadi, the raider’s job is done if he can get back to his own half safely, point or no point. In football however, our man had to break through this packed bunch and get to the other side of the half. Now, if touching and getting back to one’s own half is considered a difficult enough task to base a whole sport on it, imagine getting through. For 90 minutes yesterday, Lucio, Samuel, Cambiasso and Motta had Lionel Messi in a four-man Kabbadi sandwich at the top 3rd of the pitch. And as we all know, it’s just not possible to get past these ‘Typical Italians’ when they decide you’re not going to get past.
The commenator’s opening statement before kickoff at San Siro was that this was the battle between the Magician on the field and the Master off it. At the end of the game, heck, even an hour into it when Inter went 3-1 up, it had been settled as to which of the two had won this one. Messi has run rings around many defences this year. Against Inter though, the only rings he ran was around himself. Leo the lion was caged yesterday, and for all of us who’ve seen a caged lion in a zoo, we’ve seen the extreme restlessness and frustration with which it paces between the corners of the cage. The four people mentioned above were the cage, and in more than one instance yesterday, Messi took the ball and started to accelerate, promptly running into each of the four of them in order before passing the ball back to co-artist Xavi. “Go ahead, see if you can do anything” being the unstated thought every time such a pass happened.
Messi was not helped by the absolute lack of turning-up that Zlatan did yesterday, or the “Sorry man, but you’re not Iniesta” feeling that Keita was causing among his teammates. Duncan White has called Messi the Tactical Martyr in The Telegraph blogs. If he’s pulled so many people on to himself, surely it frees up the others? But that’s precisely the gamble Jose took. In fact, knowing Jose, it was not even a gamble. He had 2 men on Messi, Sneijder tracked Xavi almost everywhere on the pitch when Inter didn’t have the ball (which was apparently for 71% of the match!!) and that left 8 of Inter to play against 9 of Barca. Jose backed his 8 to beat this 9. At the end of the day, he was proved right, with a generous dose of helping from the linesman on the near side.
There’s a reason Messi has not been as brilliant for Argentina (yet). That reason is called Xavi Hernandez. On the pitch, almost invariably, the two look only for each other or Iniesta. Yesterday the lack of the third point of this lethal Barca trident was sorely missed. For all the purveyors of the ‘art’ that is Barcelona, it was disheartening to see Xavi come all the way to collect the ball from Valdes, look around, see a swarm of blue around Messi, drop his shoulders and pass sideways to Puyol. Barca don’t play long, raking diagonals but yesterday, there was no other way they could get the ball to Zlatan. And still they didn’t. And even if they had, I wouldn’t have been too concerned if I was Jose. Lucio pwnaged Zlatan throughout the period he was on the pitch.
Maicon had been extremely impressive in the game against Chelsea at the Bridge, going forward. His getting caught in no man’s land for Barca’s goal was probably the only blemish on his performance for the night. Look diagonally across, and you find Dani Alves. Cut to last year, and the same opponents, Chelsea. With Cashley Cole practically Siamese twinning with Messi, Alves had acres of space down Barcelona’s right, which he unfailingly ran into as well. And yet, the crosses he delivered, or pullbacks, or passes across the face of goal were met by groans by us bunch of ‘neutrals’ who were watching the game then. Yesterday it was the same. Inter invited crosses from the wing, and backed their defence to handle it. Another gamble well calculated.
A 3-1 scoreline in a first leg is usually written off as a tie-ender. However, out of sheer respect to the awesomeness that is Barca, no one’s dared to make that statement about this tie yet. Sure, I can see Barca put 4 past any team at Nou Camp. However, if I can see one team that can keep that from happening, it’s Inter. They absolutely suffocated Chelsea at the Bridge, and had enough in them to throw in the sucker punch as well. At Camp Nou, there will be no Puyol. The sucker punch is totally on. In 8 days’ time, more than ever so far, it will all come down to one man. As he showed against Arsenal, if he’s got the bit between his teeth, it’s 90 minutes of ‘Catch me if you Can’ after that. Will Inter play that game, I wonder.