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Messi on a Wet Wednesday Night in West Ham

A diverse crowd stood and roared as one for the little magician they had come to see. He was going to perform his simplest trick, the taking of a short corner, but his proximity to the spectators meant his appearance by the touchline was celebrated like he had waltzed past five defenders and scored.

But some weren’t impressed.

“There’s only one Kevin Nolan,” bellowed a Hammers fan, evidently not used to such fan fair for the hardened journeymen that usually run out at Upton Park.

In fact, there’s rarely talent worthy of such incredible, A-list celebrity-like appreciation on either team in this part of East London. The Premier League’s biggest names, some of who were involved here, are relative minnows when compared to Lionel Messi.

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And it’s by no accident that I mention Messi’s name before the teams involved. Argentina Vs a second-string Croatia in an international friendly it may have been, but the fixture was merely a platform from which the Greatest Player On Earth could entertain a fairly well populated Boleyn Ground.

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There were, of course, those dressed in the red and white of Croatia, and they may be excused from attending the game purely to get a glimpse of football royalty, while West Ham fans had turned out at their spiritual home to see the return of Carlos Tevez, but the majority of those Hammers were among those drawn in by the attraction of Messi.

Even myself, a Charlton badge displayed proudly on my chest in rival territory, had only dragged myself up to Upton Park in order to watch a player live that I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to see.

I wanted to see Messi the footballer and, his alter-ego, Messi the entertainer. I’d seem them both countless times on TV, the little Argentine mesmerising and unplayable on the very highest level, but I anticipated watching such a performer in the flesh, regardless of the nature of the game, would be exhilarating.

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And, although not at his scintillating best, Messi showed more than enough to mean I left the ground feeling privileged to have witnessed such an incredible footballer perform.

In truth, especially for a friendly, the game itself was of a quality and tempo that made it enjoyable. Argentina possessing the three-pronged threat of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Messi; Croatia exciting on the break and able to exploit a somewhat shaky Argentina back four.

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And it was the Croatians, evidently having ignored the Lionel Messi-orientated script they were supposed to read, who went ahead. One of their many breaks resulting in Anas Sharbini being played in and responding with a clinical finish.

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Nonetheless, It took little away from the roar of anticipation each time Argentina’s number 10 touched the ball. Although he and his teammates were frustrated, the spectators finding them frustrating, in the game’s early exchanged, there was still an aurar around Messi, occupying a wide right role.

Without the ball, he almost looks a little lost on the football pitch. A diminutive figure among much physically larger players.

But when the ball comes his way, and Argentina made sure it so often did, Messi stands tall. With a burst of pace and extraordinary footwork, he finds space that seemingly isn’t there and drives forward with an intent to make any opposition fearful.

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Most of the cheers when he received the ball were from the touristy-type, but even those hardened and stubborn footballers, probably feeling a little uncomfortable with amount of cameras on show, felt a sense of anticipation each time he clicked into gear. It was simply absorbing; absorbed in by an individual like I’d rarely been before.

And although his exploits, despite hitting the side netting, having a penalty appeal waved away after an outstanding run and teeing up several teammates for them to miss, failed to produce an Argentina equaliser in the first period, you still felt like you’d witnessed a genius at work as Messi trudged back to the dressing room at the break.

So in that sense, it was almost disappointing that Argentina’s equaliser early on in the second period was incredibly fortuitous. Christian Ansaldi’s effort from the edge of the box deflected off Aguero’s upper body and wrong footed the Croatian goalkeeper.

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But Messi’s time was to come.

Although not from a blistering run, a piece of breathtaking skill or a thunderous strike from range, Messi put Argentina ahead with 57 minutes played with, erm, a coolly converted penalty.

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Okay, it wasn’t quite what I was after, but being able to say I’ve seen Messi score live is something I can wax lyrical about once I’ve turned old and senile. Sending the goalkeeper the wrong way from the penalty spot can almost certainly be exaggerated.

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No sooner had Messi pleased those who had come to see him, attentions from most inside Upton Park turned to their returning hero. Tevez replaced Aguero to a deafening roar.

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And while all eyes were on the former Hammer, who saw a header saved and a shot trickle agonisingly wide of the far post, mine remained fixed on Messi.

The most incredible thing about the Barcelona man remained his off-the-ball demeanour when compared to his impressive on-the-ball style.

It would possibly be the case that, were Messi English, he would be referred to as lazy. He offers next to defensive contribution, instead sauntering around at a very slow walking pace when the opposition are in possession.

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But the moment he receives the ball, he’s alive with all the energy and threat of the such a great talent. It’s rather a simple life; do as you please while your teammates defend and make defenders look rather silly when you have the ball at your feet. Think Ricardo Fuller, except a bit better.

And while a chance wasted late on, having hit the post following some clever footwork, prevented Messi from capping his night in style, it took little away from what was an impressive, if routine, performance from the forward.

Routine too was Argentina’s win, overcoming a Croatia side lacking their big names with relative ease after an early scare.

But there is nothing routine about the entertainment side of Messi. He has you transfixed for 90 minutes, completely in awe and excitably waiting his next cut throat forward move. A pleasure to watch, even more so than I anticipated.

Still, you’d rather have Kevin Nolan, wouldn’t you?

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2 Comments

  1. charltonlane says:

    Kyle,

    Didn’t know this match was being played or might have joined you for precisely the same reason. A rare opportunity indeed.

    Keep up the good work.

    Dave.

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