Lionel Messi, the diminutive Argentine, proved once again that he is a big man for the big occasion.
Students given harsh lesson by magic Messi
ABU DHABI // Lionel Messi, the diminutive Argentine, proved once again that he is a big man for the big occasion by snatching a dramatic winning goal for Barcelona and transforming a final which, for most of a thrilling evening, they looked like losing. Ten minutes into extra time against plucky Estudiantes, "the Students" from Messi's homeland, the brilliant forward flung himself at a right-wing cross by Daniel Alves to chest the ball past goalkeeper Damian Albil and complete a magnificent sweep of six trophies for the Spanish giants in a memorable 2009.
The overwhelming favourites to take this Fifa showpiece event, held in Abu Dhabi for the first time and to return here next year, were staring down the barrel of an unexpected defeat with one minute of normal time remaining. They were rescued by Pedro, the liveliest of substitutes who was by far their most penetrative player after coming off the bench midway through the second half. Pedro, whose goal in the semi-final win over Atlante earned him the distinction of scoring in all six of the competitions Barca have won, was in the right place at the right time to profit from a flick on by Gerard Pique and aim a looping header over the previously defiant Albil.
Barca had been trailing from the 37th minute after Mauro Boselli showed greater strength than his covering marker Eric Abidal to get in a powerful header to a Juan Manuel Diaz cross and leave the diving Victor Valdes with little chance. Pep Guardiola's men could not complain at falling behind for the second time in successive matches. They responded admirably to their first wake-up call against Atlante on Wednesday but, in the early part of the evening, they looked heavy-legged and unimaginative.
The European champions were given a warning after only four minutes - coincidentally the time it took Atlante to breach their vulnerable defence on Wednesday. On this occasion it was Enzo Perez who threatened to embarrass them and it required a well-timed advance from Valdes to snuff out the danger. A similar dive at the feet of an opposing striker at the other end proved to be the main controversy of the first half. Xavi, Barca's cunning midfielder, was convinced he had been tripped by Albil in racing into the penalty area in search of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic flick.
While Xavi was just told to get on with play by the referee, Messi was dealt with more severely when he went sprawling in the middle of the pitch. A yellow card for simulation was the verdict against an unamused Messi - a bold course of action repeated late in the game when Thierry Henry went crashing to the ground. Barcelona chances in a lukewarm first period were disappointingly few and far between. A slick move started by Henry should also have been finished off by the French striker.
After Ibrahimovic had released Xavi with the neatest of backheel flicks, the resultant ball across a gaping goal was just too far ahead of the galloping Henry. Then a Messi free-kick almost unlocked the tight and uncompromising Estudiantes defence. Ibrahimovic raced menacingly behind his markers but could not make telling contact at full stretch as the goalkeeper gratefully gathered. Barca looked more in the mood after the interval and were close to an equaliser when Ibrahimovic broke down the left and shot powerfully across the face of the goal. The anxious Albil was relieved to see it skid just wide of the far post, while the Estudiantes keeper needed to be alert to prevent a low cross by Henry from reaching its intended targets in the six-yard box.
Another Henry cross from the left, however, completely foxed Albil and the goalkeeper was fortunate not to pay heavily for his misjudgement as Pedro swooped in behind him. Pedro went close twice more in quick succession after that as Barcelona dominated territory and possession, the opposing goal leading a charmed life as the pressure on it intensified. Ibrahimovic should have rescued his team with 12 minutes to go but the Swedish striker made a hash of a straight-forward header when superbly located 10 yards out by a Pedro cross.
The industrious Pedro refused to be denied and after his latest timely moment of glory the stage was irresistibly set for Messi to administer the coup de grace. firstname.lastname@example.org