All about individual brilliance

Barca has looked far from its best when Lionel Messi has failed to fire.-AP

If the one man is Messi or Bale it is surely arguable that he can make a team. Just as Diego Maradona beyond doubt made Argentina a team which won the 1986 World Cup. By Brian Glanville.

One man doesn’t make a team is an age old football adage. Yet does it still make sense? Or has it ever? I give you the current examples of Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur. Until quite recently, though the slight elusive figure of Messi had for some time been recognised as the best player in the world, it was widely assumed that Barcelona had developed a style and a system for bringing through youngsters to play it, which made them formidable; even if Messi’s amazing cornucopia of goals, which last season enabled him to overhaul Gerd ‘Der Bomber’ Muller of Bayern Munich and West Germany. More prolific even than Cristiano Ronaldo at the traditional rival Spanish club, Real Madrid.

But other Barcelona attackers were given high respect. Iniesta and Xavi in central midfield — once upon a time we would have called them inside forwards — were almost as lavishly praised. They it was who kept the Barcelona machine ticking over, they it was whose supreme ball control and inspired passing enabled Messi to run wild and free, far more than the winger he once was, and score his endless goals.

Until, quite recently, football had to think again. For an injured Messi dropped out of the team and suddenly, opposed by the hugely expensive Paris Saint Germain team — no sign of inspirational youth schemes here — they suddenly found themselves struggling. Had it not, in the return game at Nou Camp, after PSG had scored a very late equaliser, been for Messi’s noble readiness to come on as a substitute with a still persisting injury, Barca may well have gone out that night. For all their talent and invention, without Messi, even Iniesta and Xavi can plainly be frustrated. While in the previous round, on the notoriously dreadful San Siro pitch, Messi for once off form, was marginalised, when it came to the return at Nou Camp he was virtually unplayable, scoring two of the four goals against Milan, a record recovery by Barca from a two-goal margin. Even if one of those two goals was pretty clearly from an offside position.

For Messi is a law unto himself, drifting wherever he pleases across the Barca attack, able to glide past opponents with amazing dexterity, able to take up positions where he escapes from even the most populous defences, to get those extraordinary goals.

Bale, who has had a glorious season for Tottenham, is hardly yet in that class, but he has emerged as one of the finest attackers in Europe, coveted by a host of the most powerful continental teams. In his own dynamic way he is infinitely versatile. Harry Redknapp when manager of Tottenham signed him as a promising young Welsh left back from Southampton, and only after a moderate showing, often in the reserves, did he move him up to the left wing.

There, Bale showed increasing pace and skill, abetted by supreme ball control. He troubled the strongest teams in Europe, but this season, an analogy here with Messi, he has developed into an all round player, deadly effective through the middle and perfectly happy though naturally left-footed to operate on the right wing too. Catch him if you can. Foul him and he’ll fall. Indeed, he has been accused often enough of diving, but he and his allies insist that his thrilling solo runs leave so little margin for error that the least touch by an opponent can bring him crashing to the ground.

There is no comparison in styles between Bale and Messi. Bale used his explosive speed and close control to thunder through opposing defences, more and more often through the middle. One remembers especially a spectacular goal he scored at Norwich City, bursting through the middle of the defence, stumbling briefly when an opponent almost tripped him, but recovering at once to roar on and score. He is surely one of the finest Welsh players of all time. And without him Spurs look an ordinary team, devoid of the menace he personified and the goals he is so likely to get.

So yes, if the one man is Messi or Bale it is surely arguable that he can make a team. Just as Diego Maradona beyond doubt made Argentina a team which won the 1986 World Cup. I was lucky enough to be at the Azteca and Mexico City to see him score those stupendous solo goals, first against England then as if to prove it was no fluke against Belgium. With his low centre of gravity, his mesmerising control, his acceleration, he was irresistible.

Another Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano was surely the one man who made Real Madrid, winner of the first five European Cups, a mighty team. Tireless, infinitely versatile, Di Stefano personified Total Football long before it was thought of.

Yet when the incomparable Pele, probably the best footballer of all time, dropped out injured from Brazil’s 1962 World Cup team they still managed to retain it. Arguably Garrincha became that one man.

A famous right winger, now dangerous right across Brazil’s attack. Short as he was he could even out-jump tall defenders to head a goal from a corner; as indeed I saw him to do against England, in Vina del Mar. Pele wasn’t missed for all his fame and prowess.