Rejuvenated Lionel Messi lends helping hand to Barcelona coach Luis Enrique's pursuit of sucess
It was this time last year when Marca ran the headline “Messi’s lowest ebb” just before Barcelona faced Manchester City in the second leg of their meeting in the last 16 of the Champions League.
History has repeated itself for both clubs 12 months on with the Catalans again knocking out City at the same stage, but for Messi, the accusations that he has lost his energy and enthusiasm have long since dropped away and the Argentine is back to his sensational self.
It is indeed a different Messi, not only from the one that saw his talents stifled somewhat by the more direct approach of Gerardo Martino but from the one that became peerless under the domineering era of Josep Guardiola.
He is no longer the false nine but a player of imperious industry who is allowed licence to roam by Luis Enrique, starting on the right of a front three on paper but in reality moving to wherever his genius takes him.
The introduction of Luis Suarez to a frightening attacking triumvirate that already included Messi and Neymar led to Enrique having to discover a more creative role for the 27-year-old and such a shift wasn’t without its issues.
Back in January reports emerged of a training ground argument between Messi and Enrique which the club had to be quick to keep a lid on among boardroom upheaval and the possible sacking of the coach.
Rumours circulated over a potential move away from the Nou Camp for Messi as he was benched for the 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad and the club were plunged into crisis, with the unthinkable exit of its brightest star now a stark possibility for the very first time.
On a personal level Messi had to witness Cristiano Ronaldo romp to a crushing victory in the 2015 Ballon d’Or for the second year in a row but as so often in football the narrative can turn at such a nauseating speed.
Messi has been simply brilliant in 2015
What has followed is a scintillating run of form that has yielded 20 goals in the 17 games since that woeful night in San Sebastian as Barcelona now sit top of La Liga, in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and poised to compete in the Copa Del Rey final.
Meanwhile Ronaldo, while still scoring, seems to be the unhappy, frustrated spearhead of a Real Madrid mired in stuttering form, calling for a media blackout as a result of the intense scrutiny he received for his over-zealous birthday celebrations.
In contrast, Messi seems content, revelling in the role and form he is currently in. He failed to score in Wednesday’s victory over City but he claimed a beautiful assist for Ivan Rakitic’s winner and enjoyed making a mockery of the hapless James Milner and Fernandinho, much to the amusement of the on-watching Guardiola.
The nutmegs would take the headlines, but the poise, grace and vision to reel City’s defenders over to his side of the pitch before finding Rakitic with a sumptuous cross-field ball was what mattered. Guardiola would return to Munich aware that Messi in this current form presents a huge threat to his Bayern team and their chances of winning back the Champions League title in Berlin in May.
As the Croatian found the net over the sprawling Joe Hart Messi got his 17th assist of the season to go with the 43 goals he has scored in all competitions. They are another round of extraordinary statistics that has seen records continue to be shattered.
Currently out in front as Barcelona’s highest ever scorer with 397 at the relatively young age of 27, it is dismaying to imagine the numbers he could yet produce and the accolades he could yet achieve.
This season he has surpassed Telmo Zarra’s La Liga scoring record, Raul’s Champions League scoring record and the Spanish football hat-trick record all in a wonderful, emphatic riposte to last year’s accusations that his heart was no longer in the game and that his passion had deserted him.
In the 35 matches he has played for Barcelona this term, he has been rated as man of the match for 26 of them, if any bad feeling has lingered between the attacker and his manager then it certainly hasn’t affected the gold standard of his performances.
Barcelona geared for success this season
It is clear that Barcelona’s post-Sociedad soul searching was a huge watershed in their campaign, with both Andoni Zubizaretta and Carles Puyol exiting the club’s boardroom. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced into calling an early election for this summer to alleviate some of the tension surrounding the club and that, many believe, is key to Messi’s upturn in form and mood, the likely prospect of a summer break-up of the board he has recently grown disillusioned with.
To refer back to the tie with Manchester City and it would have been possible that, back in January, Manuel Pellegrini and co. would have been looking forward to the tie with Barcelona as clear opportunity to overcome their nemesis of last year.
However, the Catalans were to rediscover their vigour and City would leave Spain amidst talk of a significant summer upheaval with Sheikh Mansour’s billions once again ready to fund another recruitment drive with the emphasis on youth.
How much would they wish they could prise away their Nou Camp tormentor-in-chief who remains Barcelona’s prized possession, whom money simply can’t buy?