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The Argentine continues to break records in the Champions League, but there's one nation whose teams can justifiably claim to have found a secret to stopping him

ANALYSIS
By Kris Voakes & Carlo Garganese

Lionel Messi actually boasts a winning record over Italian clubs in Europe, taking part in three Barcelona victories and only one defeat in seven matches against Serie A representatives. However, last Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with AC Milan at San Siro accounted for yet another failure on the Argentine’s part.

He hasn't scored a goal in open play in 610 minutes of action against Italian sides in the Champions League, the longest such spell any single nation has achieved against the world’s best footballer.

MESSI v THE WORLD
The Argentine's CL stats by country
Country
Germany
England (1 pen)
Ukraine
Greece
Denmark
Czech Rep (1 pen)
France (1 pen)
Scotland
Belarus
Switzerland
Spain
Portugal
Italy (1 pen)
Russia
Starts
7
16
5
3
2
2
4
4
1
1
2
2
7
2
Sub
2
0
1
1
0
0
0
0
0
1
0
0
0
2
Goals
12
8
5
4
3
3
3
3
2
2
2
1
1
0
Whether Milan can extend the record to 700 minutes in their quarter-final second leg tonight may well go a long way to deciding who will face Chelsea or Benfica in this year’s final four, but what exactly is it that has worked for the peninsula’s clubs when tackling the 24-year-old?

Premier League enthusiasts once regularly bragged about Messi’s poor record against their clubs; and rightly so ... it took him 11 games to find the net against an English side. The floodgates have since opened, with eight goals in his past six games, including two in victorious finals against Manchester United. Now only German clubs have conceded more to him, thanks in large part to his five-goal haul against Bayer Leverkusen in the last round.

While the No.10 has appeared four times against Rubin Kazan – his only Russian opponents – without finding the net, two of those outings came as a substitute, meaning he has racked up little over 200 minutes of play in total. Italians, on the other hand, have been adversaries on many occasions since he made his Champions League bow, with his first clash coming against Udinese six seasons ago.

So why have Italians succeeded where others have failed? The main reason is that if there is one team who technically play the game like it was 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago then it is this Barcelona, who are the one exception to the new rule which suggests that skill and subtlety can't beat power and physique.

Italian teams – both club and country – have always been the best in the world defensively and tactically. However, due to a number of rule changes, the defensive and tactical weapons that Italy possess have been blunted. The professionalism, brains and furbo that Italians boast can't really be used to their advantage.

AC MILAN IN ACTION
1-1
SPOLLI 57' REFEREE: M. BERGONZI 34' ROBINHO

  PLAYER RATINGS  

But why are Barcelona, and particularly Messi, different?

Well the Blaugrana have not really moved with the times – and in style and substance are no different to teams that Italian clubs mastered better than anyone in the past.

Traditionally, Italian sides can cope with skill as they know how to close down the space, double mark, read the game, break up play and slow down the rhythm with petty fouls. Italian sides generally struggle against the modern trend of power-based opponents, you only have to watch Napoli's capitulation to Chelsea to see evidence of this. Barcelona and Messi are a complete throwback to an era when Italian defences were impregnable.

So how has this materialised itself in how Italians have dealt with Messi? Below we look at the seven meetings between the magical Argentine and representatives of Serie A, with a particular eye on how Messi was stopped from casting a spell.

SEPTEMBER 28, 2005 | BARCELONA 4-1 UDINESE

UDINESE LINEUP

De Sanctis

Bertotto
Natali
Felipe

Obodo

Zenoni
Vidigal      
Muntari
Candela
Di Natale
  Barreto

As an 18-year-old, Messi started on the right of the three-man attack, and he actually had the run on the Udinese defence from the moment he cut inside Christian Obodo to fire in Barca's first shot. It was he who then carved open the Friulani before being felled by Jose Luis Vidigal, allowing Ronaldinho to score the first of his three goals from a 25-yard free-kick.

He went on to miss three good chances to score himself, with the second a real sitter from a left-wing corner, but his magical footwork was already on display in only his third ever Champions League appearance.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2009 | INTER 0-0 BARCELONA

INTER LINEUP

Julio Cesar
Maicon
Lucio   Samuel Chivu

Thiago Motta
Zanetti     Muntari

  Sneijder  

Eto'o   Milito  

In persistent rain at San Siro, Messi got in an early shot which was parried low by Julio Cesar, and then the No.10 saw a header from a Dani Alves cross saved by the Brazilian keeper.

Apart from a scuffed volley under pressure from Walter Samuel, he had few other sights of goal, largely being allowed to drop deep and look to thread balls through for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but rarely given any opportunity in possession close to the 18-yard area, with Cristian Chivu blocking a rare chance late on. He often looked up to see all three Inter midfielders within 10 yards of him, such was his supposed danger.

APRIL 20, 2010 | INTER 3-1 BARCELONA

INTER LINEUP

Julio Cesar
Maicon
Lucio   
 
 Samuel Zanetti
            Thiago Motta   Cambiasso        
Pandev Sneijder
Eto'o
  Milito

By the time the two sides met at San Siro again in the semi-final first leg, Inter were sporting a new shape, with two holding midfielders. This saw some inter-changing between Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso in the role of man-marker, with the Italo-Brazilian doing the job for the most part.

When the two midfielders didn't stop the Argentine, Samuel did, more than once stepping in to thwart his progress. Despite nominally being one of the front men, Messi continued to drop away from the immobile Ibrahimovic in a bid to impose himself, but this became difficult at 3-1 and with Inter happy to rely on breaks.

APRIL 28, 2010 | BARCELONA 1-0 INTER

INTER LINEUP

Julio Cesar
Maicon
Lucio   Samuel Zanetti
           Thiago Motta   Cambiasso        
Eto'o
 Sneijder
Chivu

Milito


In the now infamous backs-to-the-wall effort from the Nerazzurri, they employed the same two holding midfielders to patrol Messi. After Thiago Motta's ridiculous red card, it was left to Cristian Chivu - a late call-up for the injured Goran Pandev - to sit alongside Cambiasso in what became a virtual 4-5-0 formation.

Messi provided the first threat after the flashpoint, skipping past two before being denied by a magnificent save by Julio Cesar, but again his opportunities to attack at pace were limited by Inter's reinforced core. This was exemplified when he advanced into the area in the second half but was surrounded by three men and closed out by Lucio, and late on he was more of a regista in a bid to gain any space at all.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2011 | BARCELONA 2-2 MILAN

MILAN LINEUP

Abbiati
Abate
Nesta Thiago Silva Zambrotta
Nocerino Van Bommel
Seedorf

 Boateng


Pato      
  
 Cassano

In his first tussle with the Rossoneri, he was allowed a little more space in which to work, with his position as a 'false nine' now cemented. When he broke beyond Milan's deep midfield trio, it was left to Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva to react quickly enough to close him down.

Messi hit the outside of the near post with a free-kick and forced Christian Abbiati into a low block, then beat two men on the way to assisting Pedro's equaliser. He then faded from the game though, with substitute Massimo Ambrosini helping to bolster the midfield's strong resolve after replacing the injured Kevin-Prince Boateng.

NOVEMBER 23, 2011 | MILAN 2-3 BARCELONA

MILAN LINEUP

Abbiati
Abate
Nesta
      
ThiagoASilva Zambrotta
Aquilani Van Bommel
Seedorf

Boateng

Ibrahimovic   Robinho

Milan tried to play a similar game to their matchday one effort when it came to their patrolling of Messi, but he had more freedom from deep with only Mark van Bommel of a defensive disposition in their midfield.

It was Messi’s ball over the top to Xavi which led to Van Bommel’s own goal, with Thiago Silva having been pulled out of his natural position to tend to the Argentine. But even when netting for a first time against Italian opposition, it took him two bites at the cherry, as on his first penalty attempt he halted mid-run and was forced to retake the spot-kick.

He still had a say from deep again though, threading a majestic pass through four men for Xavi to net the winner.

MARCH 28, 2012 | MILAN 0-0 BARCELONA

MILAN LINEUP

Abbiati
Bonera
Nesta
  
Mexes
Antonini
 Nocerino Ambrosini
Seedorf

 Boateng

Ibrahimovic
  Robinho

And so to his most recent European outing. With Ambrosini and Antonio Nocerino restored, Milan had more with which to match Messi, but still he was a threat. Ghosting into pockets of space, he was able to get first touch passes away, though not get any runs in at the defence.

Ambrosini did an excellent job on him outside the box, with Nesta and Philippe Mexes making their move the second he got close to the area. It was sometimes more through foul means than fair that the No.10 was thwarted, with Nesta accepting a yellow card in a bid to end one mazy run, but all remained within the spirit of competition.

APRIL 3, 2012 | BARCELONA v MILAN

So it appears that it is more in the technical approach than the tactical makeup that the secret to defending against the Ballon d'Or winner lies, but Milan are likely to need to be just as resolute in the central midfield and centre-back positions as they were last week in order to prevail.

Inter had more success against him when playing with a double pivot, and the Rossoneri have been equally as effective when more than one combative midfielder has been present.

Will the same be true on Tuesday night? Will Messi finally break his duck, or can Barca progress even without a goal from the Argentine? Perhaps it will be Milan's night?

Watch this space!

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