December has been an unfair month for Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. The forward was ranked fifth in the Ballon d’Or rankings, behind Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann and French wonderkid Kylian Mbappe.
Just a week later, Brazil legend Pele saw fit to call out the Argentine for his weak right foot, heading ability and just the ‘one skill’ that he clings on to.
Last week, the Argentine’s arch-rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, urged him to join him in Serie A and produced a tongue-in-cheek comment about how he must ‘challenge’ himself in different leagues.
Perhaps we can address all these comments and wonder if Messi’s apparent incompetence is down to his genius.
Consider a player who was the top scorer in Europe in the 2017-18 season, top assist provider in La Liga, completed more dribbles than anyone, created more chances per 90 minutes than any player and played the role of the protagonist, leading his team to a domestic double.
Now consider the argument that four players performed better than him in the top five European leagues. Outrageous, right? Apparently not, if that player is Lionel Messi.
This argument does not make a case for why Messi should have been in the top three of the rankings, let alone win it. Rather, it’s a take on how the Argentine’s consistency has rendered his accomplishments pallid in comparison to some players who remain dormant throughout the year and perform exceptionally well in a handful of games.
The best pizza in the world does not taste like the best pizza in the world if it’s consumed three times a day for a month. But its value is enhanced and the taste is more appreciated when it’s consumed as the occasional treat. It would appear that the lack of a varied diet in Messi’s season makes it tough not to overindulge in his brilliance.
Luka Modric – who made a strong case for his Ballon d’Or award – performed well in the World Cup and led his team to the finals. All the praise he’s received is perfectly justified. But when Messi did the same with Argentina in 2014, his leadership was questioned and the criticism that he failed to win the World Cup overshadowed the appreciation he received for winning the Golden Ball.
While other players are judged on what they have won, Messi is judged on what he hasn’t and this is the only explanation as to how the voting journalists came up with a list of four players who were ‘better’ than the five-time Ballon d’Or winner this year.
As silly as it sounds, Pele’s comments did have some truth to it. It is true that Messi is not great with his right foot or his head. But this inference by the Brazilian disregarded the fact the Argentine is the best passer of the ball, one of the best dribblers, arguably the best finisher and hence the most complete player in the world. Traits like these surely count for more than being ambidextrous.
This is again a case of how Messi is judged for what he isn’t rather than what he is.
Ronaldo’s comments on the need for Messi to test himself in different leagues was probably made in good humour. However, it is a fact that the Argentine has received flak throughout his career for being a ‘Barcelona player’ who needs to prove it in the Premier League.
Conversely players like Francesco Totti, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Ryan Giggs, Steven Gerrard are hailed as one-club men and are portrayed as the flag-bearers of loyalty.
The way Messi is portrayed in the same context shows how the 31-year-old is judged differently to everyone else. That’s the curse of being a genius.
Levante ended their “Invincibles” bid with a 5-4 win in May, and a slip-up this weekend could see Barcelona lose top spot in the league. They go into this round of fixtures with just a three-point lead over Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.
Here are the talking points ahead of the game.
BARCELONA ON A MISSION
The last time these two met, the match became an instant classic. Barcelona, riding a 36-game unbeaten run in La Liga, needed to survive two games to complete a historic unbeaten season.
Instead, they fell behind 5-1 away to then the league’s 15th-placed side, and then Levante held on in the face of a furious Barcelona comeback to secure a famous 5-4 win, denying La Blaugrana their place in history.
Sunday’s game, then, offers Barca a shot at revenge. But how much will that previous matchup be on the team’s mind?
Gerard Pique, for example, came on the pitch to replace Thomas Vermaelen with the score only at 2-0, and then looked all at sea as Levante’s attack punished a leaky defence. Jordi Alba was part of that defence, as well. Ousmane Dembele had one of his worst games of his debut season at the club.
Philippe Coutinho at least will have some pleasant memories of the game, having scored a hat-trick in Barca’s comeback attempt. And of course, Lionel Messi wasn’t even in the squad.
This is a game where one Levante goal could bring back haunting memories for Barcelona. Can they overcome that?
LEVANTE A DIFFERENT PROSPECT
Making the threat even bigger for Barcelona is the fact that this is a different Levante side to the one that beat them. That was a side dealing with the threat of relegation, languishing in 15th place in the table. This Levante is currently sixth, just nine points behind Barca.
Their penchant for being involved in crazy games hasn’t gone away, however. Just last week, Levante drew 4-4 with Eibar, while they also won 3-0 away against Real Betis – the same Betis that won 4-3 at the Nou Camp just over a month ago.
And Levante famously beat Real Madrid in October, a result that hastened the end for Julen Lopetegui’s reign at the club; he was sacked one match later after losing to Barcelona.
Levante also lost 6-2 at home to Sevilla, a poor result but one that still shows how exciting a Levante game can be. And Barcelona don’t need reminding.
Emmanuel Boateng has been searching for form and fitness this season, having scored only once, and the sight of Barcelona’s defence may be just what he needs. He scored a hat-trick the last time he faced them.
Even without his goals, however, Levante are a much-improved side compared to the team that pulled off last season’s shock win.
DEMBELE CAN CONTINUE TO PROVE A POINT
Dembele was Barcelona’s brightest spark on Tuesday against Tottenham, torturing Spurs’ defence throughout, and he’s come a long way from the player who underwhelmed in this fixture last season.
On that day, as everything was collapsing for Barcelona, Dembele had the worst passing accuracy of any player on his team, barring Paco Alcacer who came on to replace him. He didn’t have a single shot on target, and looked completely disjointed from the rest of Barca’s attack.
Now, the young Frenchman is in the best form since joining the Catalan club, having scored nine goals and assisted another five in 20 appearances this season.
His discipline keeps coming under the scanner, as he finds novel ways to be late for training or otherwise get under the skin of his teammates and manager, but Barcelona know his value. Messi stated this week that the club need Dembele, and Barca would be seven points worse off without the 21-year-old’s goals this season.
As long as he keeps that form up, all his discipline and work ethic issues will be tolerated, if not ignored. Sunday is a good opportunity, on his return to a ground that will hold no happy memories for him, to show how much he’s improved.
Hola Barcelona fans!
The Sport360 Team is in place bringing you all the latest Blaugrana news on Friday.
5:55pm – No ‘bad vibes’ for Dembele
Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba has declared there has “never been bad vibes” towards Ousmane Dembele within the dressing room, despite the youngster’s suspect behaviour.
5:05pm – Yaya is a no-no for West Ham
A reunion with former Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure at West Ham is now “not a priority” for manager Manuel Pellegrini.
3:30pm – Spurs threaten Everton’s Gomes deal
Tottenham plan to muscle in on Everton’s permanent deal for Barcelona castoff Andre Gomes, according to reports.
1:45pm – Suarez is set to leave
Disgruntled Barcelona winger Denis Suarez has been offered an escape route by Valencia, according to reports.