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Onazi tries to stop Messi at the World Cup in Brazil

Nigeria v Argentina and the Messi man-marking dilemma

As the year winds down, thoughts start shifting to the World Cup in Russia next year and a date that must be etched in the minds of Nigerian football fans – 26 June 2018 – when Nigeria renews acquaintances with Argentina in St Petersburg.

The Group D clash with the South Americans means Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr must have started making plans to contain their talisman Lionel Messi.  Nigeria’s four previous World Cup games against Argentina have ended in defeat and Messi scored twice the last time they met at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in a 3-2 victory for Argentina.

Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in November but that was a Messi-less team.  They are a totally different proposition with their skipper in the side, so special plans have to be made for Messi if Nigeria are to prevail and progress in the competition.

But stopping Messi presents opponents with what current Newcastle coach Rafa Benitez called the “short blanket” situation.  If you are lying in bed on a cold night and pull up a short blanket to cover your head, it would leave your feet cold and covering your feet would leave your head exposed.  You have to find a way to strike the right balance.  Playing against Messi presents coaches with this conundrum.

Barcelona’s 3-0 win away to bitter rivals Real Madrid in the “El Clasico” on Saturday brought the short blanket analogy to the fore and should provide Rohr with some food for thought on how to strike the right balance against Messi.  Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane sacrificed the more attacking midfielder Isco, Madrid’s most influential player this season, at the altar of safety to play Mateo Kovacic, whose brief was to stop Messi from picking up the ball from deep and either running at the Madrid defence or playing defence-splitting passes.  It worked like a charm in August in the Spanish Supercopa with Madrid beating Barcelona in both legs, 3-1 away and 2-0 at home.  Messi hardly had a look-in in front of goal.

This weekend Messi was quiet by his own high standards, but Kovacic’s instructions to police the little Argentine backfired for Barcelona’s first goal.  Sergio Busquets got the ball deep in Barcelona’s half in the 54th minute and released Ivan Rakitic.  The Croatian ran for what looked like an eternity from deep into Madrid’s last third.  His run was a clear and present danger, but Kovacic chose to continue to watch Messi rather than try to stop Rakitic.  Messi’s clever run, while taking Kovacic with him, parted the Madrid defence like the Red Sea.  So Rakitic had the time to find Sergi Roberto with a pass, and the right-back played the killer ball for Luis Suarez to score.

See the goal:

If Kovacic had abandoned his Messi watch and tried to stop Rakitic, he could have prevented the goal, or he could have left Messi free for a pass from Rakitic.  In this type of scenario each option is a gamble.

When Jose Mourinho was coach at Madrid, he tried several options to stop Messi, including playing central defenders like Pepe or Sergio Ramos as holding midfielders.  Mourinho is also a stickler for defensive discipline and insisting on players adhere strictly to the roles he designated for them.  His views on Kovacic’s doomed choice (with the benefit of hindsight) to follow Messi instead of stopping Rakitic would be very interesting.  Incidentally, in another El Clasico during Mourinho’s time there, Ramos was designated to mark Carles Puyol for corner kicks.  The Madrid defender then left Puyol to focus on a different danger and the Barca captain scored with a free header.  Mourinho allegedly challenged Ramos in the dressing room about not sticking to the player he was told to mark.  Ramos reportedly told Mourinho that because he didn’t play the game, he couldn’t understand that a match throws up possibilities in which you have to use your discretion in order to deal with unforeseen dangers.

Rohr would have to find a way to keep Messi quiet.  Even if the plan involves man-marking by one of Nigeria’s defensive midfielders such as Wilfred Ndidi or Ogenyi Onazi, there must be flexibility within the plan to ensure over-concentration on Messi doesn’t free up others to cause havoc.  It is a “shot blanket” situation in which only the end would justify the means.

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