Lionel Messi Better Than Ever After Latest Champions League Glory?
After watching Lionel Messi star as Barcelona lifted the Champions League trophy with a 3-1 win over Juventus in Berlin, Adam Bate reflects on a season that saw the Argentine genius reclaim his throne from Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps become better than ever…
There are plenty of theories about what sparked it. Cristiano Ronaldo’s guttural scream upon winning the Ballon d’Or in January is perhaps the most fantastical. Had Lionel Messi heard enough? After all, one week prior to that there had been a bust up with Luis Enrique and he’d been left out of the starting line-up for the defeat to Real Sociedad. In the first game following the ceremony in Switzerland, Messi scored his first La Liga hat-trick away from the Nou Camp in almost a year.
What we’ve seen since has been Messi at his very best. He came into Saturday’s Champions League final having scored five braces in his previous eight games, the first time he’d been on that sort of streak since 2012. Events in Berlin only underlined the return to top form. The goal didn’t come but the medal rarely looked in doubt. It’s the fourth of his career and one he’s waited four years for.
What a difference just one of those years makes. Of course, Messi’s dip has been unlike any other in that he was still scoring at a rate of around a goal every game throughout it and his slip down the rankings essentially meant he’d fallen from being the best player on the planet to the second best. But Ronaldo’s Champions League win contrasted sufficiently with Barca’s problems and Messi World Cup final woe to attract attention.
Most worrying of all was the suggestion that Messi was physically not able to perform in the same manner as he had previously. That would be understandable given his extraordinary workload – averaging well over 60 games per season for club and country over a seven-year period. Messi has rarely been substituted in that time and just next weekend the roadshow will move on to Chile where he’s expected to play in Argentina’s first game at the Copa America. It’s a punishing routine.
“On the back of what he’d done for Barcelona (in the last three or four months of last season), his hamstring injury and how the World Cup had gone, I was one of those who thought we’d seen the best of him,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. “The reason being that he’d started at 17 playing week in week out for Barcelona. He’s 27. Very rarely do you see players who started that young going on to 30 and beyond. He was actually walking through games and still influencing them.”
The skills never once deserted the great man but that spark over a yard briefly eluded him. When he covered only 6.8 kilometres in last season’s Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid, barely more than goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto, an explanation was proffered arguing that it was a tactical decision. The claim was unconvincing. If Messi could or would run as he had before, there seemed little reason to believe he shouldn’t be doing so.
But something has changed and the spark is back. It was evident in the way he nipped through a seemingly non-existent gap to penetrate the Athletic Bilbao defence and score his Copa del Rey wonder goal last weekend. And we saw glimpses of it against Juventus, gliding by Arturo Vidal early on then dancing away from Paul Pogba and Patrice Evra just before the interval.
Messi looks physically strong once again, able to get the better of opponents with speed as well as skill. Some are crediting this to the work of Italian doctor and nutritionist Giuliano Poser whose help the player sought out last year. For Messi to take the time out to visit such an individual is revealing in itself. It was surely an acknowledgement that there was scope for improvement in his preparation. Leonardo Bonucci tasted the results when Messi turned on the after-burners to sprint away from him early in the second half of the final.
“When a football player eats better, their body functions well,” Poser told Sport in the build-up to the Champions League final. “He can work and strengthen his muscles, helping him have more resistance on the pitch and preventing fatigue from setting in. The human body is a machine that must eat and be treated well in order for the muscles to work well. Leo Messi eats and works well. I think that Leo is a very intelligent and intuitive man. He is a great athlete.”
But Messi is not just a great athlete. He might even be better than ever. Indeed, there is an argument to suggest that the period through which Messi was coping with being less than 100 per cent has helped hone his skills even further. Messi has always had the close control in tight spaces but he has also now developed a passing range to rival that of the game’s great playmakers. “Now he brings the assists into it,” Thierry Henry told Sky Sports. “Now he’s willing to share.”
His glorious long-range pass to find Jordi Alba provided the catalyst for Ivan Rakitic’s opening goal. Another to Neymar drew a handball shout minutes later and a pass slid through to Suarez might have seen Dani Alves double the lead. His chipped pass to Neymar then caught out the Juve back line – and this was all inside the opening 15 minutes. It’s a side of his game that Messi has developed with time.
Lionel Messi created more chances (36) and completed more dribbles (92) than anyone else in the 2014/15 Champions League.
He played more key passes than any other player in the 2014/15 Champions League season and, fascinatingly, threaded nine through-balls behind opposition defences – more than twice as many as anyone else in the competition. With Xavi and Andrea Pirlo both set to walk away from European football this summer, the game’s greatest goalscorer is also its most gifted creator too.
Messi turns 28 later this month and the next phase of his career won’t be far away. But right now the balance is perfect and as a result he’s threatening to take it to a new level. Mature and magical, physically and mentally at his peak, we’ve all been privy to something extraordinary in 2014/15. This was the season that the best got better.