On the day that Lionel Messi was named to the 2012 TIME 100 list of global influentials, 2010 honoree Didier Drogba was not about to quietly cede to the wee Argentine the mantle of representing the global game in TIME’s pantheon. As Messi’s Barcelona swarmed all over Drogba’s Chelsea in their European Champion’s League semi-final first leg at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium in London, only ill luck prevented a rout by the rampaging Catalans, who created (but failed to convert) at least a dozen clear-cut scoring chances (in fact, Barca had 24 attempts on goal compared to Chelsea’s four). Luck, that is, and dogged defending, first and foremost by the young English center back Gary Cahill, who repeatedly kept the Blues in the game by stopping Messi’s menacing advances on goal. Indeed, what was most notable, perhaps, was that most of Barca’s chances fell to Messi’s teammates Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, as the diminutive forward on this occasion was forced to drop deep in search of the ball and only occasionally managed to burrow a path through the packed defense of his blue-shirted opponents.
Messi, the ball glued to his foot — with his low center of gravity and exquisite skill, and sharpness of reflex and wit ensuring that when he was tackled, more often than not he managed to recover the loose ball more rapidly than his opponent — was clearly the danger man, drawing two or three defenders every time he started a run. That was the reason most of Barca’s chances fell to his teammates; when Messi isn’t scoring or providing the assist, he creates chances simply by dint of his reputation, as his runs draw the attention of so many defenders that gaps are opened for Messrs. Sanchez, Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta.
(LIST: The 2012 TIME 100)
If it had been a tactical choice, Chelsea’s game plan would have been a footballing equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” victory over George Foreman in 1974. But it wasn’t, because Chelsea had no choice: From the kickoff, they were under the cosh, with Barcelona enjoying 72% of possession over the 90 minutes, repeatedly passing their way around and through the Chelsea lines. The aging stars of the London club, on what could be a last tilt at Champion’s League glory, may have been on home turf, but they played most of the game like an away team under siege, restricted to the rare foray on the break when Barca very occasionally turned over possession.
In those moments, it was Drogba, the giant Ivorian striker of explosive physical power and pace (whose game couldn’t be more different from Messi’s intricate dribbling), that offered Chelsea hope, more than once running onto long-balls lifted hopefully over the Barca defense to signal the danger. But it took a slight injury to Messi, tweaking a groin muscle as he slipped on the rain-sodden grass and seemingly momentarily weakening his left leg, to produce a rare role-reversal. Firstly, Frank Lampard picked his pocket in midfield, a trick usually associated with Messi. In a flash, Lampard had switched the ball wide to the rampaging Ramires, the Brazilian Energizer Bunny of the Chelsea midfield, whose exquisitely placed cross took two defenders out of the game and allowed Drogba to smash home the only goal of the match, as the Londoners held on for a desperate shut-out.
That’s 1-0 to the TIME 100 Class of 2010.
Messi will have plenty of opportunity to make amends, though, in the second leg of the semi-final, played at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium next Tuesday. And in the meantime, he’ll have an opportunity to console himself on Saturday with one of his favorite pastimes: Tormenting Barcelona’s arch-rival, Real Madrid, in the Spanish league showdown known as “El Clasico” (Real holds a four-point advantage over Barca with five games to play). Back to Europe and the smart money says both sides will overcome one-goal deficits from their first legs, and make the Champion’s League final in Munich next month yet another “Clasico.”