Lionel Messi - Celebrating 15 years of greatness from the Barcelona icon

Andy West 15:34 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi.

Even now, with his career still ongoing, the name carries a mystical, mythical air. This little man from a little town in central Argentina is one part human, two parts living legend and four parts supernatural being, transcending sport, even transcending life itself.

Alien, artist, genius, god, icon…a symbol of our age.

Few sportspeople reach such heights. Many strive with all their might, but only a select few are able to conquer our imaginations, enrapture our senses and propel themselves into history.

Muhammed Ali did it. So did Donald Bradman, Michael Jordan and Pele. In the 21st century, Usain Bolt attained immortality, Roger Federer is on his way to veneration and then, the king of modern-day sporting kings, there sits Messi, implacable and serene on his throne.

It feels petty and deeply unimaginative to reduce Messi’s achievements to plain statistics, but the numbers he has achieved are so stupendous they cannot be ignored.

For starters, 604 goals for Barcelona – a ludicrous 372 more than the second-highest scorer in the history of one of the world’s greatest sporting organisations. Thirty four club trophies, including four Champions League winning medals and no less than 10 league titles.

The numbers speak for themselves. But there is, of course, one very significant gap: senior international honours.

Somehow, Messi’s tragic failure to win anything with Argentina – despite reaching three consecutive finals between 2014 and 2016 – makes his story even more compelling.

Had he casually strolled his way to every possible trophy, his flawlessness would have risked veering towards tedium: there he goes, winning everything again. How boring.

The fact, therefore, that Messi has encountered regular doses of heartache, even drawing outbursts of venemous ire from some of his over-demanding countrymen, reminds us that he is, despite all appearances to the contrary, only human. One of us.

From our perspective as spectators, after becoming accustomed to watching Messi conjure marvels and miracles on a weekly basis, the danger is that we take him for granted.

Let us not. Let us take this milestone, 15 years after his debut for Barcelona, as an opportunity to stop, reflect, and cherish. To cast aside partisan club preferences and just celebrate his magnificence. To be grateful that we have been alive to witness his magic.

To be thankful for Lionel Messi.

On the 15th anniversary of his official Barcelona debut, that is exactly what we will do.

In the below links are five distinct chapters, all hallmarking the genius of Messi…

Magician Appears (2004-08)

Evolution Under Pep (2009-11)

Statistical Phenom (2012)

Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Identity Change (2017-)

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Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 5: Identity Change (2017-present)

Andy West 15:34 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi

We’re celebrating 15 years since Lionel Messi made his official debut for Barcelona by chronicling his career so far through five chapters. Here’s is chapter five, all chapters can be read here:

Magician Appears (2004-08)

Evolution Under Pep (2009-11)

Statistical Phenom (2012)

Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Identity Change (2017-)

‘La Liga de Messi’…a new catchphrase was born in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, which saw Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to consecutive title triumphs after dominating the competition in a manner few players have ever achieved.

Leading scorer; most assists; most chances created; most dribbles; most free-kick goals, most passes in the final third…think of any attacking statistical category you like, and Messi probably led it for two years in a row.

In a way, Messi had no choice but to be so dominant because the quality of his supporting cast had declined sharply from previous years. Whereas once there was Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, or Xavi and Andres Iniesta, or Neymar and Luis Suarez, now Messi was being asked to prop up a declining team containing a bunch of fading stars, temporary makeweights such as Aleix Vidal, Paco Alcacer and Paulinho and under-performing costly imports Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho.

Of course, there has still been plenty of quality within the Barcelona ranks over the last couple of seasons, but the fact that – by common consensus – the team’s second-best player during their back-to-back titles was goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen shows just how much Messi had to do.

And he did it brilliantly. Helped by a pair of shocking seasons for Real Madrid, Barca were able to wrap up the title with room to spare in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 14 and 11 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid despite their obvious shortcomings.

Those two seasons have also seen the latest evolution in Messi’s career, as he adopted a deeper position to become more of a playmaker than ever before.

The departures, one after the other, of Xavi, Dani Alves, Iniesta and Neymar essentially forced this reinvention, with Barca of the late 2010s possessing neither the control in midfield nor the cutting edge on the flanks they had in the past, while the arrival of conservative coach Ernesto Valverde served to further evolve a more stable and cautious team, relying on individual brilliance rather than consistent collective pressure for their attacking breakthroughs.

More often than not, of course, those sparks of individual brilliance came from Messi – often ably supported by his close friend Suarez, despite the Uruguayan’s gradual loss of consistency as he headed towards the end of his career.

Logically, Messi should also be slowing down as he passes through his early thirties, but so far there has been no real sign of any deterioration. His goal haul over the past two seasons – 45 in 2017/18 and 51 a year later – more or less matches anything he has achieved over the course of his career, barring the improbable and unrepeatable abnormality of the 2012-13 record-breaking goalscoring blitz.

His goals seem to be getting more spectacular, too. For one thing, his set-piece prowess has developed remarkably as shown by his astonishing eight free-kick goals in the 2018/19 campaign, including the unforgettable Champions League semi-final effort against Liverpool which was named UEFA’s goal of the season. A similar strike past Atletico’s Jan Oblak was the match-winner in an effective title decider the previous season.

Messi’s open play strikes have also frequently been breathtaking in their individual quality, including (to name just four highlights of many) a caressed chip at Real Betis which truly defied belief and a stunning hat-trick at Sevilla – left-footed volley, right-footed curler and cheeky dink over the keeper – in the spring of 2019.

It cannot be overlooked that he has done all this from a different position, playing deeper than ever to spark attacking moves from midfield and create chances with geometrically flawless through balls – notably with the recurrent delight of perfectly-timed raking right-to-left diagonal balls dropping behind the defence and neatly into the stride of onrushing left-back Jordi Alba.

From right wing to false nine to inside right, Messi is now evolving again to become more of a traditional ‘number ten’, creating play from an advanced midfield position, and it seems likely that he will spend the remainder of his career in that role being just as brilliant as ever, but in a slightly different way.

The nagging worry, though, is that Barca are often too reliant on Messi, allowing their overall levels of collective play to drop in the (often justified) belief that he will conjure something remarkable to rescue them.

This is a criticism he has faced regularly over the years, and it has never been more relevant than the last couple of seasons as the skipper inspired Barca to a pair of comfortable title triumphs despite the team rarely looking convincing.

In the end, those frailties prevented Messi from lifting the Champions League trophy as pressure situations at Roma and Liverpool proved too intense to endure, and the biggest challenge facing Ernesto Valverde is allowing Messi to remain the chief protagonist without forcing him to become the only protagonist.

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In theory, the pieces should be in place for that to happen. The acquisitions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, the emergence of Ousmane Dembele, Arthur and Ansu Fati, the brilliance of ter Stegen and the ability of old guard Suarez, Busquets, Pique and Alba clearly give Barca the tools to compete for any trophy.

And as Messi reaches his 15th anniversary, the good news is that his appetite for the game appears to be undimmed. Those Champions League failures in Rome and Liverpool hit hard, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that Messi is launching a personal crusade to restore his team to European ascendancy before he retires.

How much longer will he go on? We can speculate, but in truth nobody knows – not even Messi himself. Judging by the way, however, that he has constantly succeeded in reinventing himself and confronting new challenges over the last decade and a half, we can be confident that his story is by no means over.

The magic goes on.

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Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 4: Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Andy West 15:34 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi

We’re celebrating 15 years since Lionel Messi made his official debut for Barcelona by chronicling his career so far through five chapters. Here’s is chapter four, all chapters can be read here:

Magician Appears (2004-08)

Evolution Under Pep (2009-11)

Statistical Phenom (2012)

Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Identity Change (2017-)

As 2014 came to a close, it was tempting to tentatively reach the sad conclusion that Lionel Messi was starting to lose his superpowers and sinking into the lowly realms inhabited by mere mortals.

The 2013/14 campaign was without doubt the worst of his career to date. That is all relative, of course: he still managed 41 goals in all competitions for Barcelona. But the season ended without a trophy as a team managed by his fellow Argentine Tata Martino were muscled out by Atletico Madrid, who took the league title by earning a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou on the final day of the season after already knocking the Catalans out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.

There was also devastating personal heartache for Messi and his teammates as they mourned the cruel loss of Tito Vilanova, the highly popular coach who briefly succeeded Pep Guardiola as manager before being beaten by cancer, a personal loss which hit Messi hard.

Messi then endured more agony as his latest bid to win the World Cup failed in crushing circumstances as Argentina suffered an extra time loss to Germany in the Rio final, and when he made a modest start to the new season – with Barca now led by feisty new coach Luis Enrique – it was starting to look as though Messi’s finest days might already be behind him.

But he was about to prove the foolish doubters wrong.

The turning point came on 13 January 2015 and a home meeting with reigning champions Atletico, coming on a Sunday night at the end of the week which had been dominated by reports that Messi was seriously considering leaving the club after suffering a total breakdown in his relationship with boss Luis Enrique.

Whatever the truth in those rumours, the fraught situation certainly sparked Messi into life as he produced a brilliant performance to help dismantle Atletico, as the new strike force of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all scored in the same game for the very first time to secure a 3-1 victory.

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From that moment, there was no looking back. The strike trio, dubbed MSN by the media, proceeded to tear apart all-comers with some of the most scintillating attacking play ever witnessed.

Powered by the front three but amply backed up by the rest of the team, Barca overcame their slow start to the season by surging to the league title, and were also crowned kings of Europe after doing things the hard way by overcoming a brutal draw – the knockout stages forced them to overcome the reigning champions of England (Manchester City), France (Paris Saint-Germain), Germany (Bayern Munich) and Italy (Juventus), culminating in the latter being swept aside 3–1 in the Berlin final.

That completed a perfect treble, with Barca also winning the Copa del Rey with a 3-1 final victory over Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou, memorable for yet another mesmerising goal from Messi as he cut in from the right wing to beat three defenders and fire inside the near post.

This was an example of Messi’s ability to adapt to the unfolding circumstances around him. As well as reconciling himself with a spiky new coach, with whom his relationship was initially short, the arrival of Suarez had necessitated Messi leaving the false nine position he had inhabited for the previous five years.

He quickly found a new home back on the right wing, cutting inside to both provide and receive ammunition from fellow South Americans Suarez and Neymar in the same way he had done with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o at the start of his career.

Messi’s particular personal highlight – and there were many to choose from – came in the Champions League semi-final against a Bayern team led by ex-Barca boss Pep Guardiola, whose return to the Camp Nou understandably attracted a huge amount of attention. The tie was billed as Messi vs Guardiola, the student against the mentor, as they went head to head for the very first time…and there was no doubt about the winner.

The first leg was goalless and finely balanced until the latter stages, when Messi firstly received a pass from Dani Alves and crunched home a brutal low shot from the edge of the penalty area, before consolidating his team’s advantage by recording one of his greatest ever goals with a twisting run – leaving Jerome Boateng stumbling to his backside – and a glorious right-footed chip over Manuel Neuer.

Throughout this trophy-laden period, the sight of Messi, Suarez and Neymar in full flight was a glorious treat for any football fan. Their close off-field friendship blossomed into a telepathic on-pitch whirlwind of creative carnage, with the speed and vision of their interplay regularly rendering opposing defences dizzied and dazed.

As much as their individual brilliance, the secret of MSN’s success lay in their remarkable selflessness, with each member of the trio habitually deferring scoring chances in order to provide clearer opportunities to one of the others, and in many games they appeared to be immersed in a private game to ensure all three got on the scoresheet.

After securing the treble in 2014/15, the relentless firepower of MSN masterminded another domestic double the following season. But cracks were starting to appear: Neymar was growing unwilling to share the limelight with others, and the overall shape of the team was also being compromised, with the front trio often appearing to be operating as a separate unit rather than fitting into a smooth collective unit as they had in the treble campaign.

The 2016/17 season duly saw Barca fall behind Real Madrid, who claimed a deserved league and European double. By then, Luis Enrique had already announced his departure, and Neymar soon followed in a shock move to PSG.

Despite the triumphs they had enjoyed over the previous three years, the shifting sands of time dictated that another new era was beckoning for Barcelona. And Messi, once again, would have to adapt and evolve.

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