How Lionel Messi is a man on a mission this season
Once indisputably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, has seen his stock fall rapidly in recent years. First he had to watch on as eternal rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, closed the once seemingly insurmountable 4-1 Ballon d’Or lead to level at five apiece, then he suffered the ignominy of failing to make it to the top three of the top individual awards for the first time in exactly a decade, with his fifth place Ballon d’Or finish being the nadir of all.
He went into the World Cup as the talisman of a football obsessed country which has not tasted international success in over 25 years, and Messi was seen as the man upon whom Argentine hopes for a first World Cup since the Diego Maradona inspired win in 1986 (a year before Messi was born), with his compatriots chanting morale songs of Argentina lifting the World Cup by the hands of Lionel Messi.
As it happened, those hopes got dashed, as Lionel Messi was captain of an underperforming generation of players who needed a last gasp victory on the final day of the group stage to gain qualification from what was supposed to be an easily navigable group, before falling at the hands of eventual champions France at the round-of-16 stage.
To make matters worse, the highly revered Pele (playing career-wise) made some rather laughable claims last week, among which were that Messi has only one skill (really?), can't score with his head (just tell that to Nemanja Vidic and Edwin Van der Sar), and should not be compared to him and Diego Maradona.
Those claims are as baseless as suggesting that Adolf Hitler is the most benevolent man in history, and moreover, they should not be taken too seriously, as anyone who has even slightly followed Pele’s ‘punditry’ career since he hung up his playing boots would know that the iconic Brazilian is infamous for making some of the most outrageous comments.
A major factor which has seen Lionel Messi miss out on the individual prizes to Ronaldo in recent years has been Barcelona’s continued faltering in the knockouts of the UCL, with Messi going AWOL (he is without a quarter-final UCL goal in 10 matches since 2013), while Ronaldo has inspired Real to each of the last 3 Champions League trophies consecutively (with his superhuman performances particularly in the knockouts playing an integral role).
Lionel Messi knows that winning the Champions League is central to him achieving personal accolades, as no matter what he does anywhere else, all pales in comparison to performances in the Champions League, with a case in point being last season where the 31-year-old inspired Barcelona to a domestic double and finished as the European Golden Boot winner but wasn’t deemed worthy of a podium finish at the Ballon d’Or or FIFA Best ceremonies.
He stated as much during his first speech upon assumption of the Barcelona captaincy following the departure of Andres Iniesta, and his performance in Europe’s premier club competition shows that Lionel Messi is very much a man on a mission.
The campaign was started with an emphatic 4-0 triumph over PSV, with the Blaugrana record goalscorer getting a finely taken hat-trick, and he continued his fine form throughout the remaining group matches (despite missing two match-weeks due to injury).
He currently has 6 goals (tournament top scorer), and has provided 1 assist for his teammates in just 3 UCL matches.
However, Messi has always been an extraterrestrial performer, and his impact this season has not just been limited to Europe, as he has also uplifted his team domestically.
Earlier in the campaign, the Argentine became the first man in Spanish top-flight history to cross the 150 mark for assists in LaLiga, and currently has 8 assists in the league this season (no prizes for guessing that he tops the assist charts).
With 11 goals scored in the league, Messi also sits top of the scorers chart, and is currently among the forerunners for his record 6th European Golden Boot. His stats would undoubtedly have been higher, but for an unfortunate shoulder injury sustained against Sevilla, which was expected to keep him out for at least three weeks (but in keeping to his mission, the Barca number 10 returned almost two weeks earlier than expected, to continue his charge towards redemption).
Against Espanyol over the weekend in the Catalan derby, Lionel Messi was at his imperious best, as though to make a mockery of the Ballon d’Or ranking as well as Pele’s assertions (which all came in the last week).
It took Leo just 17 minutes to signal his statement of intent, as he opened the scoring with a well taken free-kick from 24 yards beyond the diving reach of the despairing Pau Lopez, and just 9 minutes later, he turned provider, showing great grit and determination to stay on his feet (despite a couple of cynical fouls), darting and twisting the Espanyol back line before laying the ball on a platter for Ousmane Dembele to double Barca’s lead.
There were numerous other chances for Messi to notch up more assists, and but for poor finishing would have easily had a hat-trick of assists, as he found pockets of space (which no one else in the world would see), and had the wherewithal to deliver pin-point accurate passes (which no one else has the ability to do) for his teammates to exploit.
In the second half, Lionel Messi was at it again, once more sending a free-kick over the wall and into the net despite Lopez’s best efforts, taking his free-kick tally for 2018 to 9 in LaLiga (which is THREE more than any other TEAM has managed in all of Europe’s top five leagues).
Lionel Messi has already scored 17 goals and provided 9 assists in just 17 matches in all competitions, and we’re not even halfway into the season yet. In this form, he is impossible to stop (as Espanyol found out over the weekend), but this should come as no surprise to anyone, as Lionel Messi is a wounded Lion on a mission to reclaim his lost pride, just like he stated at the start of the season.