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 three, all chapters can be read here:
On 15 January 2012, Lionel Messi scored his first goals of the new calendar year, netting twice in a 4-2 home victory over Real Betis.
On 22 December 2012, Lionel Messi scored his last goal of the old calendar year, hitting the target in a 3-1 win at Real Zaragoza.
In between, Messi scored another 88 goals, giving him a ludicrous total of 91 for the year and setting a new all-time record, surpassing the previous mark of 85 set by Gerd Muller of Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.
It was, quite self-evidently, an outrageously magnificent year for the Argentine – even by his own other-worldly standards. Nothing like it has ever been done before, and in all probability nothing like it will ever be done again as Messi sneaked into space from his false nine position and ruthlessly laid waste to hapless defence after hapless defence.
The unprecedented goalscoring spree in 2012 actually took a while to get going – Messi drew a blank in his opening game of the year, a frustrating 1-1 local derby draw against Espanyol, and only scored once in six games between late January and early February.
But when he started, he just could not stop.
In the space of less than six weeks between 14 February and 24 March, he registered a remarkable tally of 21 goals in just nine games, netting four-tricks including a five-goal haul against Bayer Leverkusen, four against Valencia and his first international trio in a 3-1 friendly win over Switzerland.
However, Messi’s final goals of that 2011/12 campaign were tinged with sadness, coming after his mentor and manager Pep Guardiola announced that he was leaving Barcelona to escape the non-stop stress piled upon his shoulders by four years in the job.
Fittingly, Messi marked his outgoing boss’s imminent departure by bagging consecutive hat-tricks in the space of four days in Guardiola’s final two home games – the photo of the star player racing to embrace the iconic coach on the sidelines after netting his fourth and final goal against Espanyol has become one of the emblematic images of both their careers, encapsulating the end of a relationship which had transfixed fans all over the world and made an equally lasting impression on coaches, who fell over themselves to emulate some of the tactical innovations which had delivered so much success to the Camp Nou.
Aside from a Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao, though, those final weeks of the Guardiola reign were unable to maintain the sky-high standards the team had set over the previous three years.
The departure of the coach was largely motivated by his team’s failure to land another major trophy, with Barca suffering an unfortunate Champions League semi-final defeat to Chelsea (with Messi firing a key penalty against the bar in the second leg, just to prove he was occasionally fallible) and losing out in La Liga to Real Madrid as Jose Mourinho finally succeeded in getting the better of his arch-rivals with a near-flawless campaign.
It had been a tough few months for the arch-competitor Messi, who would have happily traded a few dozen of his goals for another league or European title, but he found summer solace by grabbing another hat-trick to give Argentina a thrilling 4-3 friendly victory over Brazil, and he headed into the new season on a positive note after the appointment of his first ever coach at Barca, Tito Vilanova, to replace Guardiola.
As a welcome present to the new man in charge, Messi needed only 16 minutes to score twice in Vilanova’s first competitive game in charge, a home meeting with Real Sociedad, setting Barca on their way to a 5-1 victory and getting himself in gear for another goal-laden campaign.
Messi loved playing under Vilanova, who had first coached him as a 13 year-old and later served as Guardiola’s assistant, and the goals continued to flow with ridiculous ease as the new coach picked up where his predecessor had left off.
Seven goals in three games in October opened up the prospect of Muller’s decades-old record being overhauled, and the question of whether Messi would reach the magic figure of 85 became the dominant narrative around every subsequent game.
Sure enough, Messi maintained his furious pace by scoring six consecutive league braces and overhauled the German legend with time to spare, netting another pair of goals to seal a 2-1 win at Real Betis on 9 December – in a typical display of selflessness, he celebrated the record-breaking strike not by racing to the nearest camera for a spot of indulgent posing, but by turning straight to teammate Andres Iniesta and thanking him for the assist.
Somehow, that still wasn’t the end of Messi’s record-breaking feats. The two goals at Betis came near the start of another beyond belief sequence: between 11 November and 5 May, Messi netted in 21 consecutive games in La Liga, scoring against all 19 teams and recording 33 goals in the process to fire his team to another league title – although there was again disappointment in the Champions League semi-final as Barca were obliterated 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich, hinting at a period of change ahead.
For Messi, though, the period either side of Guardiola’s departure and Vilanova’s arrival had been a resounding personal triumph: 91 goals in a calendar year; scoring in 21 consecutive games; eight hat-tricks in less than five months; 73 goals in a season, including 50 in the league…it all seemed impossible, but Messi has been making the impossible perfectly normal throughout his career – and never more so than in 2012.
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