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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Lionel Messi shows shades of Sheringham as Barcelona captain leaves Spurs spellbound

At 31 the Barca captain is adapting his game to his physical needs. But, as he showed against Tottenham, his impact is no less frightening

Lionel Messi scored twice in Barcelona's 4-2 Champions League victory over Tottenham at Wembley. EPA
Lionel Messi scored twice in Barcelona's 4-2 Champions League victory over Tottenham at Wembley. EPA

A platitude universally used when describing Teddy Sheringham was that he made up for a lack of speed on the pitch by having "the first two yards in his head". To read those words now you would think that the former Manchester United and England striker had about as much mobility as Nelson's Column and was only able to get one over the opposition by thinking on his feet quicker than those around him.

This, of course, is nonsense. True, Sheringham was never going to win a gold medal in the hundred-yard dash, few centre-backs worried about being exposed against him one-on-one, but, then, neither was he some sort of stationary mastermind impacting proceedings from the comfort of his armchair smoking a pipe with his slippers on.

Sheringham's guile, touch and technical ability often made him the perfect foil for others, but the former Tottenham Hotspur man could make even the best defenders look foolish with a well-timed run, taking up unorthodox positions or an expert finish that brought more than 350 goals in a 15-year career.

Some players seem to map out how the play will unfold in their mind's eye. As one of Sheringham's former clubs lined up against Barcleona on Wednesday, one player appeared sanguine amid the intensity of a high-profile match, as if he already knew in advance what the outcome against Tottneham would be, and how he would affect that outcome.

Lionel Messi displayed just why he is the greatest player in world football, no matter if Luka Modric's name is on the Fifa best player award. The Argentine maestro played to a beat only he could hear. When the pace needed picking up, Messi was the driving force. Twice denied by the woodwork, the captain finally got his name on the scoresheet to make it 3-1.

When Barca needed a second wind with Spurs chasing an equaliser to make it 3-3, Messi's last-gasp burst down the touchline galvanised his Barca teammates for one final assault that eventually led to the captain scoring one of the easiest of his 573 career goals.

But it is the bit in between that showed why Messi is the greatest to ever play the game, and had shades of Sheringham. When calm was called for, Messi brought the tempo down to a snail's pace, walking around the pitch so languid that he made Dimitrov Berbatov look enthusiastic.

Receiving the ball from just inside the Tottenham half, Messi was carefully calculating that several Spurs players would attempt to close him down, freeing up more space for teammates. Whether at full throttle or standing still, Spurs were unable to take the ball off him.

At 31, Messi, like his great nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, is being forced to adapt his game after more than 14 years playing at the top level. Gone is the sudden burst of pace - although that was still evident as Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez constantly switched sides to try contain Messi's mazy dribbles. Instead Wembley was treated to a masterclass in passing by the mercurial Argentine.

Jordi Alba offered an out-ball all evening and was found by the left foot of Messi with unerring accuracy. A pass to the Spanish left-back left Kieran Trippier panicking and Hugo Lloris in no-man's land to allow Philippe Coutinho to open the scoring after 92 seconds. His cross into Luis Suarez eventually led to Ivan Rakitic rifling home one of the better goals you will see in this season's Champions League.

It says something about his performance when Messi's most telling contribution wasn't the two goals he scored but the way he dictated play through his game management and passing. But, then, we shouldn't be surprised - the world's greatest does it on an almost weekly basis.

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Read more:

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