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 two, all chapters can be read here:
By the start of 2009, Lionel Messi was already firmly established as one of the greatest footballers in the world.
New Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola had placed an enormous amount of trust in Messi, making him the team’s biggest star at the expense of previously peerless Ronaldinho, who was ruthlessly jettisoned to AC Milan amid concerns that his party-hard lifestyle would negatively impact upon his teammates – especially the impressionable young Messi.
As Guardiola’s debut season approached its conclusion, the decision to axe the Brazilian was amply justified as the new manager’s team delivered a series of sensational performances to mount a major challenge for both La Liga and the Champions League, with Ronaldinho’s replacement Thierry Henry playing a pivotal role on the left-hand side of an attack also featuring Messi on the right and Samuel Eto’o through the middle.
Still, though, Guardiola was not satisfied. He believed his team could get even better, and to realise his lofty visions he devised a creative new strategy which, if it worked, would allow Messi to become even more of a protagonist: the rookie coach would shift Eto’o to the right wing, moving Messi into a central position as a withdrawn centre forward, leaving the opposition central defenders with nobody to directly mark and instead tasked with covering the Argentine in a rarely used position known as a ‘false nine’.
To unleash his experimental masterplan, Guardiola sensibly chose the low-key occasion of a behind-closed-doors friendly…wait, no, that’s not quite right. In fact, Messi first appeared in the false nine role against no lesser an opposition than Real Madrid. At the Bernabeu. In a title decider. Daring? This was bold beyond belief, but it yielded spectacular results.
The date was 2 May 2009, and Barca travelled to the Spanish capital protecting a four point lead in the title race, with five games remaining. A victory would have given Madrid fresh hope, but they never got close. They never had a chance. Inspired by Messi, who scored twice, Barca demolished them, destroyed them, obliterated them, winning 6-2 to leave the football world open-mouthed.
After the game, Madrid centre back Christophe Metzelder admitted that Messi’s new position had left him and defensive partner Fabio Cannavaro completely flummoxed: should they hold their positions and leave Messi unmarked, or follow him into midfield and leave space behind them for Messi – or Henry and Eto’o – to exploit? They just did not know what to do.
Over the next few years, hundreds of defenders shared Metzelder’s initial confusion and eventual pain. Messi ran riot on a weekly basis, lifting Barca to heights rarely reached by any football team, and achieving unheard of individual goalscoring feats as a matter of routine.
Practically every week was a highlight, but five big games in particular can be seen as encapsulating the glory of Guardiola’s Barca, with Messi at the centre of everything: two of them against Manchester United, three of them against Real Madrid.
The first, that era-launching 6-2 win at the Bernabeu to effectively clinch the league title, was soon followed by more silverware as Messi and Eto’o scored a goal apiece in a 2-0 Champions League final victory over Manchester United in Rome.
The following season saw Barca reclaim La Liga but suffer frustration on the European stage, squeezed to death by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in a vitriolic semi-final. So when Mourinho returned to the Camp Nou a few months later in November 2010, this time as the recently-appointed manager of Real Madrid, Messi and his teammates had a point to prove. And boy, how they proved it.
The scoreline – Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0 – says enough. But what those figures cannot possibly reveal is the sublime nature of Barca’s performance, as Messi pulled the strings to run Real ragged. Although he did not score, Messi was at the heart of everything and created two goals with breathtaking defence-splitting through balls for David Villa, and superiority over Mourinho’s Madrid was truly established.
That pecking order was challenged again a few months later, when the teams squared off for a Champions League Clasico semi-final. The first leg at the Bernabeu was a tight affair, but Messi sent his side ahead with a close-range finish in the latter stages. And what happened next could barely be believed.
Dropping deep to receive the ball from Sergio Busquets in his false nine position, close to the halfway line, Messi had the entire Madrid team in front of him. No problem. He burst away from Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso, eluded Sergio Ramos, breezed past Raul Albiol, raced into the area to beat Marcelo and concluded his burst of genius by rolling a diabolically calm finish into the far corner past Iker Casillas. It was one of the greatest goals in Champions League history, and Messi had conjured it by himself, from the halfway line, against his team’s biggest rivals, in their own stadium, to sentence a semi-final.
It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do, and that impression was strengthened a few weeks later, when another masterclass downed Manchester United at Wembley to claim the club’s second Champions League title in three seasons with a 3-1 victory which desperately flattered the English team. Messi, of course, scored a brilliant goal, rifling a low 20-yard strike past the despairing dive of Edwin van der Sar. But his contribution was far more than goals, with his beautiful interplay with Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi condemning United to chase shadows and uniting the world in astonished admiration.
That victory at Wembley did far more than secure another trophy: it also defined an era: this was the era of Pep’s Barca dominating world football, with Messi as the focal point, wreaking havoc from his false nine position.
Football, quite possibly, has never been so good. And football, very probably, will never be so good again.
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