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El Pantomima!

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LIONEL MESSI
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Two rehearsals had already been completed, stage directions were submitted, and conflicting director's slights were heard. The billboard had predicted a marvelous epic, what transpired resembled Punch and Judy more than Swan Lake. The third installment in the El Clásico series, starring Real Madrid and Barcelona, was witnessed by millions worldwide last night, and enjoyed by few.

This should have been an advert for European football, for La Liga, and Spanish football in particular. What unfolded was two teams, brimming to the boil with talented footballers, set up to play in the most excruciating manner possible. Madrid in their white overalls seemed to have been unaware of their status as the 'home' team, deploying an excessively defensive team that looked to kick the ball high and long at the foremost opportunity. Then there was Barcelona, in their red and blue stripes, taking part in a global hypnosis exercise of passing unnecessarily short distances; over and over again.

Not only was the game played with a embarrassingly negative feel, the players took it upon themselves to provide the entertainment through dives, feigning of injury, theatrics, harassment of the officials and other general forms of childish acts. Sergio Busquets kept his consistency of possessing a glass jaw that opponents would trigger by being within yards of him. Various other members of Barcelona and Madrid took a few extra tumbles on the floor after each tackle, whether it was legitimate or not.

The whole game took on a sad and tedious feel with both teams content with taking as little risk as possible, in the hope that the opposition would create their downfall rather than be forced into such a fate. It's a poor indictment of all involved, with the caliber of players on show that such a pantomime was played out. It was as if a set of actors had kidnapped the real players and played fool with the public, masquerading as footballers, more interested in theatrical nominations and the awarding of cards, than they were with the business of sports entertainment.

Lost in amongst all of the tiresome tomfoolery, one could have been forgiven for mislaying the pre-billing that came before the ties commencement - Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi. It was hard not to feel sorry for either player; Madrid's other ten players were content with hitting the ball as hard as possible and praying that Ronaldo would conjure some magic out of it. Messi, while receiving much better service from his team, did not enjoy any form of breathing space from the Madrid stoppers, and both were largely anonymous for the best part of the match.

By the 75th minute, the game had become a mass of confusion. Successive free-kicks, players on the ground, time wasting were constant menaces to the flow of the game. The Portuguese defender, Pepe, was sent off for Madrid, harshly adjudged to have fouled Daniel Alves, a yellow card would have sufficed, a red was fitting with the travesty of the match as a whole. Then there was salvation.

The brilliant boy from Argentina struck again. Messi's first goal came from some great work by the substitute, Ibriham Affelay, with the diminutive Catalan forward darting in ahead of Sergio Ramos to steer the ball through Iker Casillas' legs. His second was so out of tune with the tune of the match thus far that you could have been forgiven for thinking that you had accidentally changed the channel on your TV. He took the ball around 30 yards away from the Madrid goal, gave and went from Busquets and then skipped past one, two, three Madrid defenders, before scooping the ball in, whilst falling, past the despairing dive of the Madrid keeper to put one of Barcelona's feet firmly in the final of the UEFA Champions League.

Lionel Messi literally dragged this match from the despair of contention onto a higher plane of dignity. Jose Mourinho will no doubt complain about the sending off, but his own side's lack of a plan B, especially when Messi scored his first, was a damning display of one-dimensionality. Although Barcelona, as a team, were guilty of this same stubborn trait, what they have in the boy-wonder from Rosario is a one-man contingency plan. He can turn the tallest of tides and single-handedly drag his team through the mire and onto glory.

The stage is set for round two.

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