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Monday, April 23, 2007
Individual or Collective?

The interesting thing about Leo Messi's goal last week against Getafe was the consensus. The greatest goal ever, or perhaps the second greatest ever?

The only sign of rebellion came from Getafe's manager Bernd Schuster, who complained that one of his defenders/midfielders should have brought him down - a rather depressing comment from a man who practised a more advanced aesthetic himself when a player, and exactly the same comment made by Argentines in 1986 after Maradona's uncannily similar goal.

The English defence was dismissed as noble but innocent that day, although one has to say that it's doubtful whether any of Getafe's players could have actually reached Messi to foul him, such was the Barça players' acceleration. Indeed, one of Messi's great virtues, like Maradona before him, is his ability to stay on his feet where others would fall - deliberately or otherwise.

Even the pro-Madrid paper 'Marca' was frothing at the mouth about the goal, to the extent that it featured on the cover with the headline '20 Years and 10 months and 26 days later, Maradona's goal'.

Well - the only way to step out of line is to assert, as my friend the barman has indeed asserted, that Maradona scored his in the white-hot pressure bowl of a World Cup quarter-final, against England, and Messi scored his against the mighty Getafe, albeit in a King's Cup semi-final. Maybe, maybe. It's worth noting, however, that Getafe have the best defensive record in La Liga with only 24 goals conceded, and that losing 5-2 was rather out of character.

But with Barça stumbling again this weekend, this time at Villarreal, it's hardly a foregone conclusion that the Catalans are in the final. If Getafe can score twice in the Camp Nou then why not thrice in the Coliseum?

But sticking to the theme of great goals, it was most propitious that Ruud Van Nistlerooy should score a cracker in the decisive game in the Bernabéu against Valencia on Saturday night. You could see that in the end, the pro-Madrid press had got fed up of pandering to the new god Messi, and that they needed some relief. It arrived in the shape of the goal by Nistlerooy that in many ways was just as good.

The debate is now on as to the relative aesthetics of the two, but the Real Madrid lobby, desperately seeking to regain a little bit of attention, were claiming that their goal was symbolic of team-work, as opposed to the mere individualism of Messi.

They have a point, of course. People tend to remember outrageous individual goals more easily than they recall wonderful team efforts, although in the case of Madrid's opener against Valencia, Van Nistlerooy struck the ball beautifully as well - as sweet a volley as you're likely to see, with the whole thing enhanced by the main camera position, right behind the angle of the Dutchman's shot.

These things influence the collective memory of a goal, conditioned as it always is by the main portrayal, by the main angle of the leading camera's shot. Raul's wonderful strike against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1999-2000 Champions League was extra memorable because the camera angle enabled the viewer to see what United's Johnsen could not - that Raúl was leaning to the right in order to curl the ball to the left into the part of the net on which the camera was focusing, exactly as was Raúl.

Whatever, the two goals that have framed the week's action over here are uncannily representative of the two big sides this season. Who would have thought that one would be making this assertion, so soon after witnessing two years of classic concerted Barcelona action, smelling of team spirit?

Back then, Madrid's only answer was to base their results on isolated flashes of individual brilliance, usually from Ronaldo, in order to steal results that their play rarely deserved. Now it seems that Barça are depending on the same effect, whilst Madrid have built on a tedious but semi-effective method of strangling games in the middle of the park, pushing on relentlessly until a goal arrives.

It's very Capello, but the Van Nistlerooy's goal was anything but. It represented what is now called the 'jugadon' (the big play) - a moment when everything comes right and a complex and pretty move results in a goal. Nine players shared in the move, with 13 passes all effected first-time, like in a five-a-side one-touch practice. Van Nistlerooy was actually involved twice in the build-up too.

So, even goals here are politicised. Barça's was great, but it reflected a certain type of football culture - individualistic, egocentric - as implied by the Madrid press. Real's goal was more noble, symbolic of a side working together to regain the league title. As daft as it was predictable, but there's the rub.

In the middle of it all, Leo Messi, a funny little chap with a child's face and an attractively modest manner, dedicating the goal to Maradona who lay somewhere over in South America on a drip, unrecognisable from the man who scored that equally wonderful goal twenty years ago.

But for all Messi's latent greatness, the team that he now plays in look a pale shadow of the side that he emerged in. They should have finished off Villarreal in the first half, but having failed to do so, paid the price and opened up the league title chase into one of the most intriguing for several seasons. After a year in which La Liga's reputation seemed to be taking a bit of a battering, all eyes are now refocused on a finish (there are seven games left) as unpredictable as Sam Etoo's tongue.

Three points separate the top three sides, but Sevilla and Madrid have a slight swagger to them at the moment, as if they feel that they're on the up. They've both missed out on previous chances to get ahead, such that it seemed that Barça were about to win by default, but now they're all going to have to sweat it out.

Zaragoza moved up the fourth, courtesy of Valencia's defeat, also brought on by England's finest, Beckham, whose silken right foot still looks good enough to be doing its stuff in Europe. His introduction on Saturday night changed the game, throwing Valencia into a panic as they realised that their defensive strategy hadn't taken his presence into account.

Given time and room on the right, he simply took them apart with his passing, curling over a precision free-kick from which Ramos headed the winner. Were you watching Steve McClaren?

It's even getting interesting at the bottom, with Real Sociedad and Nastic making an unexpected fight of it. Ten points adrift at one stage, the two of them are now within striking distance of their increasingly nervous fellow shipwrecks, namely Celta and a poor-looking Betis. Athletic Bilbao are hardly out of the mire yet, and they face Real Madrid next week in San Mamés in what should be a cracker.

Back at the top, Sevilla should dispose of Espanyol in the Sánchez Pizjuan, and Barcelona have a relatively easy-looking game at home to Levante. But you never know this season, although Barça have by far the easiest looking run-in. Real Madrid v Sevilla in a fortnight should also sort out a few betting-house odds. It's still looking good. Don't switch off just yet.


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