When Barcelona played Granada last matchweek, Lionel Messi and David Villa were spotted having an altercation on the Camp Nou turf.
"Give it to me first time" was what the Argentinian maestro was apparently telling his Spanish counterpart, with lip-readers suggesting that Messi was asking for a quick one-two after feeding the ball to Villa.
Villa retorted in similar fashion, saying "you weren't there first time", but the pair allegedly made up after the game, and although Barcelona won courtesy Xavi's piledriver in the 87th minute and a Lionel Messi orchestrated own-goal in stoppage time, 'El Mesias' was also seen criticising La Masia graduate Thiago Alcantara during his appearance as a late substitute.
As veteran football journalist Graham Hunter put it: “For what it’s worth I think Messi made a minor error in having a pop at Villa in that way. To me it’s not a biggie but given that Villa is just back after months out and cannot be at his sharpest it was a brutal call to lose temper over that. It would have taken an instinctive first time pass of the very highest order for any player to feed Messi’s run.
"The angle was on, Messi saw the opportunity but he’s a genius who’s not been out for close to a year. He and Villa have had their moments because Messi wants the ball all the time. What’s more, Villa has had to sacrifice a lot positionally.”
And therein lies a problem that may seem innocuous on the surface, but scratch underneath and one could be looking at an issue that has existed at Barcelona ever since Lionel Messi was fielded up front for the Catalans.
The fact that Lionel Messi plays up front for Barcelona means that David Villa is now the third striker to come to a tactical compromise to accommodate the man Diego Maradona calls his successor.
Before David Villa came to the Camp Nou, Barcelona could boast of two world-class strikers: Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. During Henry's time, it was Samuel Eto'o who played up front (sometimes alongside the Frenchman), with Lionel Messi out wide on the wings.
Henry hadn't been fielded on the flanks since his time at Juventus, having been Arsenal's main man once he had been 're-taught the art of striking,' to quote him. Six-feet-five-inch Ibrahimovic came to Catalonia as Samuel Eto'o and a rather large amount of money went to Internazionale Milano and Jose Mourinho in Italy.
And for a while, it seemed like Zlatan would fit in with Barca's style of play, as he chipped in regularly with goals.
But one day, Messi asked Guardiola to field him up front. According to Ibrahimovic's autobiography: "Messi is awesome. Unbelievable. I don't know him very well. We are very different personalities. He came to Barca 13 years old and is brought up in their culture.
"In the team, the play revolves around him, which is natural really. He's brilliant, but now I had come, and I was scoring more than he did. He went to Guardiola and said: 'I don't want to play on the right side, on the wing, anymore. I want to be in the middle.'
"That was where I was. But Guardiola didn't give a shit. He changed tactics. From 4-3-3 he switched to 4-5-1 with me on top and Messi right behind, leaving me in the shadow. All balls went through Messi and I couldn't play my game. I have to be free as a bird on the field.
"I'm the guy who wants to make a difference on all levels. But Guardiola sacrificed me. That's the truth. He locked me in up there. OK, I can understand his situation. Messi was the star."
Zlatan did attempt to work out what the problem was, but then Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola froze him out completely. He scored two goals in the Champions League against Arsenal at the Emirates, but was then substituted and saw Arsenal pull back to 2-2.
Ibrahimovic had come off for Thierry Henry, who was also having problems with playing on the wing. Henry had expected to alternate with Zlatan in the striker's role, but Messi's request to play there had put a spanner in both strikers' works.
To quote from Ibrahimovic's autobiography again: "I asked Thierry Henry, who was on the bench during this time. Thierry Henry is the top scorer in the history of the French national team. He's cool. He was still amazing, and he was also having problems with Guardiola.
"He doesn't greet me. He doesn't look me in the eyes, what has happened?" I asked.
"No idea", Henry said.
"We started joking about it. "Hey, Zlatan, has he looked at you today?" "No, but I saw his back!" "Congratulations, things are improving!" s*** like that, and it helped a little bit. But it was really getting on my nerves, and I asked myself every hour: What have I done? What's wrong?"
Things ultimately took a turn for the worse for the striking duo. Thierry Henry was shipped off to New York Red Bulls after being frozen out of the Barcelona squad for the latter part of his last season in Spain, while the lack of playing time was beginning to eat at Zlatan.
After a La Liga game against Villarreal away from home, Zlatan had decided that enough was enough:
"I wasn't happy, to use mild words, and in the dressing room my enemy stood, scratching his bald head. Few others were in there. Touré and a few others, and the big metal box where we put our clothes, and I was staring at the box. Then I kicked it. I think it flew like three meters, but I wasn't done yet. Far from it. I yelled:
"You have no b***', and probably some worse things, and added:
"You s*** yourself in front of Mourinho. You can go f*** yourself!"
I went insane, and maybe you'd expect Guardiola to say something, maybe: Calm down, you don't talk like that to your coach! But he's not like that. He's a weak coward. He just picked up the box, like a little cleaner, and then he left and never talked about it again, nothing at all. But of course words spread. In the bus everyone was crazy.
This was after Ibrahimovic had contributed 22 goals and 15 assists in all competitions. He was soon sent out on loan to AC Milan, and made his move permanent the following season before moving to Paris Saint-Germain this summer. Needless to say, he has scored the bulk of both his side's goals since leaving Barca.
Thierry Henry continues to showcase the tricks and flicks that he was known for at Arsenal, coupled with his lethal finishing ability and eagle eye to spot a teammate that made him a terror for defenders across Europe.
But here's my question: sure, Lionel Messi is one of the best players in the modern world, if not the best, but doesn't the team always come first? These are not unheralded strikers were are talking about, but world-class frontmen.
Thierry Henry retired from the France national side as his nation's top scorer, and I still smile when I remember that 2-0 win in Paris over Lithuania that gave him the goals to move past Michel Platini's 43.
David Villa also heralded his surpassing of Raul as Spain's top scorer when he scored a brace against the Czech Republic in a Euro 2012 qualifier in 2011, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is captain of his country — like Henry was — and is currently fourth in the list of all-time leading goalscorers for Sweden.
Why, then, were these strikers, who were obviously excellent finishers, positionally brilliant and lethal players, overlooked in favour of an Argentinian — who is no doubt one of the world's best players — but is not a striker by nature?
The problem with Messi is that he wants the ball all the time, and this could be detrimental to his teammates. Tito Villanova has tried to wean Barca of their dependance on Messi for goals, but that really hasn't worked according to plan: the game against Spartak Moskva in the UEFA Champions League at the Camp Nou says it all.
Cristiano Ronaldo seldom plays up front for Real Madrid. No...that position belongs to either Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. The only time he is fielded as a striker is when his side absolutely requires him to play there. Even for Portugal — who aren't exactly blessed with a wealth of strikers — Ronaldo plays on the wing.
Barca fans might argue with me, saying that Lionel Messi's position as (one of) the best players in the world means he comes first, and everybody else has to adjust their positions accordingly. But one cannot be dependent on Messi forever. What if Barcelona need to dip into the market to buy another striker? Edinson Cavani or Radamel Falcao won't want to play out wide, or warm the bench while 'El Mesias' is ploughing a lone furrow in attack.
Why then, is Messi being indulged when there are others who have more claim to playing up front ?
First Published On : Oct 1, 2012 10:33 IST