Magnificent Messi proving why he remains the world’s best

Ronaldo was voted player of the year in 2014 but Argentine has responded

Orchestrating everything is Messi, an all-round genius who could run past four players or pick out a runner on the far side with a no-look pass. There’s no way to tell.

Orchestrating everything is Messi, an all-round genius who could run past four players or pick out a runner on the far side with a no-look pass. There’s no way to tell.

 

Rio Ferdinand tells a story in his autobiography about the time he asked Thierry Henry to pick a favourite between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Henry replied by telling Rio about something he saw in training during his time at Barcelona. Messi had been fouled and the coach hadn’t given him a free kick. Messi was furious.

Rio takes up the story: “So when the ball went back to his goalkeeper, he ran back and demanded the ball. The goalkeeper rolled him the ball, and Messi then proceeded to run through the entire team and score in anger. Thierry said that was what he used to do in the playground at school. I did stuff like that too against little kids. But he did it against some of the best in the world: Yaya Toure, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets. And it wasn’t just that one time. He did it a couple of times.

Thierry said: ‘Can Ronaldo do that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen him do that.’ Thierry played with Zidane and Ronaldinho but they never did anything like that. He said: ‘That’s when I knew Messi was different to anyone we’ve ever seen.’”

The story makes it clear that Messi is the best player Thierry Henry or Rio Ferdinand have ever come across. But we probably knew that. More interesting is the detail. Messi hates when decisions go against him, even in training. And maybe he plays his best when he’s angry.

By the end of 2014, he had a lot to be angry about. Barcelona had lost the league to Atletico Madrid on the last day of the season, and been knocked out of the Champions League by the same opponents in the quarter-finals. They lost the Spanish Cup final to Real Madrid, then had to watch Real win their 10th European Cup in Lisbon.

Played well

Messi went to the World Cup and played well in the group stages, but ran out of steam in the knockout rounds, ultimately losing in the final to Germany. Once, in the second half, he got in behind the German defence, but his shot curved the wrong side of the post. Clutching a silly award for the best player of the World Cup that nobody believed he deserved, he returned to Barcelona and discovered in October that he would face criminal proceedings for tax evasion.

 

He flew home to Argentina for Christmas with Barcelona trailing an imperious Real Madrid in the league. If he paid any attention to the global sports media over the holidays, he would have read story after story about how the indomitable, relentless Cristiano Ronaldo had seized back the mantle of the world’s greatest player.

In the sports movie version of Messi’s season, something happens over that holiday period that changes everything forever. Maybe his two-year-old son, Thiago, demands a Cristiano Ronaldo doll for Christmas. The gutpunched Messi experiences a painful yet liberating epiphany. He perceives that the fault lies within. He understands that he has allowed this to happen, but realises that he has the power to turn it around. From that moment his jaw is set, and a furious determination burns in his eyes.

In fact, Messi had been playing pretty well since the start of the season, scoring 26 times for club and country before the winter break. So narrative and reality don’t correspond as neatly as you’d like. But a couple of narrative points are not in doubt.

The first is that Messi returned from Argentina and in the first training session of the new year, he was fouled but didn’t get a free kick. Thierry Henry could probably have guessed what would happen next, but three weeks later Jeremy Mathieu, who saw the whole thing, gave chapter and verse.

“Leo blew his top,” Mathieu said. “Things got tense, [he and Luis Enrique] said a few things to each other. The coach came to speak to him in the dressing room afterwards and that’s that. It happens at every club, but because it’s Barcelona, it’s made out to be a huge thing. That’s the problem.”

The row

Two days after the row with the coach, Messi was left on the bench for Barcelona’s first match of the new year away to Real Sociedad. He came on at half-time with Barcelona already losing 1-0, but couldn’t make any difference to the outcome.

 

The next day, Messi failed to turn up to training. Later that same day, the sporting director, Andoni Zubizaretta, was sacked. Barcelona’s season appeared to be in meltdown.

The next undisputed fact is that the following Sunday, Messi gave his best performance of the season to that point. He tore into Atletico Madrid with a vengeance, scoring a goal and creating another one for Luis Suarez, but what really stood out was his aggressive attitude. He studded the opposing goalkeeper in the chest going for one ball, and even gave away a penalty for the first time in his career.

The next day, Ronaldo was named the best player in the world at a ceremony in Zurich. Messi received only 15 per cent of the vote. Although the footage of the event shows Messi sitting there looking fairly impassive, in the sports movie Messi rages and cries on the private jet home, eventually turning to his agent and swearing that he would make the 85 per cent who had got it wrong eat their votes.

Since that night Messi has got 33 goals and 16 assists in 31 games. But there’s something these numbers aren’t catching. His performance in Barcelona’s home win against Manchester City gave notice that he had graduated to a new level of dominance – not just a great goalscorer, but a complete all-round playmaker who happens also to be a great goalscorer.

The fact that a great player like Messi continues to develop dimensions of his game is not in itself especially surprising. The surprising thing is that he has done it while recapturing certain qualities we thought he might have lost forever.

Best technique

Messi is 28 later this month, and with more than 500 senior games already in his legs it would be understandable if he was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. That’s what seemed to be happening in 2014. Messi still had the best technique, the best reactions and the best picture of the game, but no longer looked quite as electric, quite as explosive. It seemed as though his days of dribbling past defenders were gone.

 

That was before Messi destroyed Jerome Boateng with a brilliant dribble to kill off Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals. That was before he scored an even more ridiculous goal in the Spanish Cup final, receiving the ball close to half-way and coming to a dead stop, before accelerating away past four Athletic Bilbao defenders and lashing the ball in at the near post.

The goal against Bilbao showed the usual Messi cunning – the slow dribble infield to create space on the flank before he cut back and accelerated down the line – and the usual superb Messi technique. But it also showed a raw power that has not always been so evident – the way in which he held off the challenger on his initial sprint down the line was reminiscent of a rugby winger.

Of course, this sports movie wouldn’t conform to classical story structure unless the hero met with a mentor or wise counsellor who provided him with an amulet or charm to help him on his quest.

Fortunately, the facts here provide grist for the narrative mill. The improvement in Messi’s physical condition has attracted a lot of coverage in the Spanish press over the last few weeks. Last week, the pro-Madrid sports paper, Marca, which would not be notably pro-Messi in its coverage, published an article comparing a recent photo of Messi’s face to one taken a few months ago. In the newer photo he is noticeably leaner, the jawline clearly defined. What was a dimple in his chin has become a cleft.

“The Argentine’s resurgence this term, in which he has scaled heights that many thought were now beyond him, is inextricably linked to a strict diet,” Marca commented.

Giuliano Poser, a nutritionist based in Sacile, near Venice, has provided the ingredients to get Messi back to his best. Since the pair have been working together, the superstar has looked noticeably slimmer, losing between four and five kilos.”

Messi’s association with Poser was first reported by Italian media in April. It seems the 59-year-old encourages his clients to refrain from consuming processed foods, alcohol and tobacco. Instead they should eat fresh organic fruit and vegetables and drink plenty of good mineral water. Presumably Poser has further strings to his nutritional bow, since there seems little point in Messi travelling all the way to northern Italy to get the kind of advice he could read in any government health leaflet published this century.

Messi has always been notoriously childlike in his eating habits, fond of fizzy drinks, breaded chicken and pizza. Is it possible there were a few extra percentage points of potential to be unlocked by the transition to a grown-up athlete’s diet?

The biography of Messi published in 2013 by Guillem Balague claimed that Pep Guardiola had already persuaded Messi to reform his diet years ago, but when the website Libertad Digital published a sheet revealing the Barcelona squad’s post-match meal back in September, we saw that Messi had requested Sprite, where most of his team-mates were drinking water. Maybe Poser has shepherded him back towards the straight and narrow.

Club record

Whatever about Messi and his nutritionist, we can all appreciate the on-field chemistry between him and his strike partners. The Angry Messi game against Atletico in January also marked the first time he, Neymar and Suarez had all scored in the same match. They now have 120 goals between them this season – smashing the previous club record for a front three of 108, set by Messi, Henry and Eto’o in 2008-09.

 

We’re watching the best front three in the history of the Champions League. Each of them is a once-in-generation goalscorer for his national team, but you could say the same about Madrid’s front three of Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema. What sets the Barcelona trio apart is the complementarity of their individual talents.

Suarez provides aggression and energy, bullying defenders and hunting them down; as at Liverpool, his selfless intensity sets the tone for the rest of the team. It says everything about the quality of the men he is playing with that Suarez, one of the current era’s great forwards, is now praised chiefly for his workhorse qualities. Neymar brings elusive speed and finesse. A lot of his 38 goals have come via tap-ins from Suarez and Messi assists, but that’s because Neymar has the pace and cunning to arrive in the right place at the right time.

Orchestrating everything is Messi, an all-round genius who could run past four players or pick out a runner on the far side with a no-look pass. There’s no way to tell.

As a defence, what can you do? If you push out, they will run in behind you. If you sit back, they’ll pass it through you. If you get tight they’ll roll you, if you stand off they’ll run past you, and if you foul them, they’ll probably score the free kick. The answers have eluded Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris St Germain and Real Madrid. For Juventus to defy them at the last is, simply, not in the script.

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