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Frank Isola: Lionel Messi failed to step up in the biggest games of the season

Chelsea should be happy that it faced an uncharacteristically average Messi in the Champions League semifinals.

Lionel Messi’s history is that he usually waits until the World Cup to disappear and disappoint.

But the diminutive Argentine, who holds the title of World’s Best Footballer, out-did himself over a seven-day span that will haunt him and Barcelona for some time.

In the Catalans’ three biggest matches, Messi failed to score. In fact, he barely made an impact except for the fact that his blow penalty kick in the second half against Chelsea on Tuesday deflated Barcelona and provided the London side with the belief that it would pull off an improbable upset.

Make no mistake about it, Chelsea advanced to the Champions League Final because of grit, determination, luck and a very average Messi.

“We've gotten to where we are today thanks to this kid," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. "More than ever I want to thank him for what he's done for us.”

Guardiola was wise to publicly support Messi, who has in fact elevated Barcelona to the status of world’s top club team. He knows Messi will take a big hit and deservedly so for what unfolded at Camp Nou on Tuesday. Chelsea earned a 2-2 tie, scoring both goals after team captain John Terry foolishly and selfishly, was shown a straight red card late in the first half.

When Terry was sent off, Barcelona was leading 2-0 and making reservations for the Final in Munich. That Chelsea scored during first-half injury time was shocking indeed but not nearly as shocking as what happened early in the second half when Messi had the game on his precious left foot.

Chelsea’s Didier Drogba had tripped Cesc Fabregas in the box and Barcelona was one Messi PK away from almost assuredly advancing. But Messi’s shot smashed off the crossbar and was cleared out of danger. Barcelona spent the next 42 minutes dominating possession and growing increasingly frustrated. Messi even smacked a shot off the post but was unable to find the back of the net.

A goal would have made it 3-1 and forced Chelsea, defending with all nine field players, to come out of its shell and play soccer. With Chelsea vulnerable, Barcelona could have tallied four or five goals. Instead, Messi’s wasted penalty kick allowed Chelsea to defend and frustrate the home side.

“You have to praise Chelsea for their defensive display -- for their courage, for their bravery, for their mental strength in knowing that they had to play this game,” Guardiola said.

Yes and no. Barcelona’s weakness offensively is winning balls in the air, especially against a team like Chelsea that has the size and strength to control balls that are crossed into the box.  Barcelona patiently waited for openings in Chelsea’s defense just as it did six days earlier in London but Barca and Messi didn’t create enough chances.

Moving Carlos Puyol forward and trying to play balls to passionate defender may have worked. Puyol has the conviction, courage and skill to win headers.  But Guardiola didn’t adjust.

"You look at the team and try to tell them what they did wrong, why they're not in the final," Guardiola said. "And I don't know what to tell them.  At the end of the day you're out of the final and that's all that matters. Sincerely I think it wasn't our turn. We did everything we could – absolutely everything – but we got to a semi-final and lost.”

And that’s why much of the blame falls on Messi, who had a chance to send Barca to Munich only to find the wood work. Barcelona went 0-2-1 in its last three matches, losing to Real Madrid at home on Sunday and drawing with Chelsea on Tuesday.

Starting with the first leg of the semifinals last week in London, Barcelona scored three goals in three matches and none from Messi. Meanwhile, other top players made their mark.

Frank Lampard seemed to complete just two passes combined in both matches against Barca and yet both led to goals. Last week, Lampard stole the ball from Messi which led to Drogba’s counterattack goal.

On Tuesday, Lampard’s through ball to Ramirez ended with Ramirez expertly chipping the ball over Victor Valdes’ outstretched arms for an incredible goal.  

“I think that at 2-0 at halftime we would have believed we would do it, but at 2-1 it was bad for us psychologically," Guardiola said.

With Barcelona pressing forward in the closing seconds trying to equalize, Fernando Torres ended the suspense when he scored on a breakaway to tie it a 2-2. Chelsea had won the opening leg at home 1-0 and advanced 3-2 on aggregate.

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Torres’ goals was at that same end of the field where Ronaldo’s brilliant goal in the 73rd minute gave Real Madrid a 2-1 win thus making it a mortal lock to win La Liga.

As for Messi, he was reduced to tears on Tuesday. For three straight games he was mediocre, especially considering the standard he sets for himself.

It was undeniably a bad week for Messi and Barcelona. You can still call them the best on the planet. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.  But for this year they just won’t have the trophies to prove it.

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