Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Messi's Basque Nemesis

This article featuring Basque football player Koikili Lertxundi was published at Times OnLine:

Only way to stop a genius

Chelsea can learn from one of the few to have tamed Messi

Ian Hawkey

KOIKILI LERTXUNDI is an unusual footballer. He has a degree in history and was once the Spanish under-15 champion at Greco-Roman wrestling. During his spare afternoons, he runs a human resources business in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country. In the mornings, he drives his camper van to his other work, parks up next to the sports cars and high-performance vehicles of his colleagues and trains as the left-back for Athletic Bilbao.

Koikili , 28, is an especially rare footballer in this season’s Spanish first division for another reason: he has tamed Lionel Messi. Many full-backs have tried, several have approached the task with an X-rated brutality, but very few have anaesthetised the menace of the little Argentinian as effectively as Koikili. Messi scored when Barcelona defeated Athletic 2-0 at Camp Nou last month but only by converting a penalty. Otherwise, he had a diminished influence, tightly policed throughout by the brainy Basque.

“I was impressed with the marking job Koikili did,” said Barça’s head coach, Pep Guardiola, who is usually keener to draw referees’ attention to how often Messi gets fouled.

“With Messi, there’s no special secret,” says Koikili. “The key is to stay right on top of him, stick close and not let him enter a duel with the ball at his feet. Once he does that, he’s at his best.”

Koikili was Leo’s limpet for most of the Barça-Athletic game, so much so that Messi drifted into a more central position and even briefly tried switching wings. He had scarcely seemed so thwarted since, 12 months ago, Barcelona went 180 minutes without a goal in the European Cup semi-final games against Manchester United. On those nights, his marshal was Patrice Evra.

You can take a good guess at Messi’s first instinct in a duel. He is conspicuously left-footed and, though his ability to attack the space outside the left-back and cross or control with his right foot has improved in the past three seasons, his natural deviation is to move inside the pitch from right wing. When Real Madrid went to Camp Nou in December, coach Juande Ramos put Sergio Ramos, a right-footer, at left-back to counter the manoeuvre. Other managers have thought likewise.

“You can understand it,” says Koikili. “Messi is stronger on his left foot and, as his marker, you are aware that’s the side he’s going to want to go past you. But left-footer or right-footer, the main thing is to stop him being in the position to set off on one of those runs.”


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