Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 3: Statistical Phenom (2012)

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 three, 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-)

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.

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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.

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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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Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 2 Evolution under Pep Guardiola (2009-11)

Andy West 15:34 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola

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:

Magician Appears (2004-08)

Evolution Under Pep (2009-11)

Statistical Phenom (2012)

Stocking Trophies (2013-16)

Identity Change (2017-)

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.

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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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Celebrating 15 years of Lionel Messi - Chapter 1: The magician appears (2004-2008)

Andy West 12:01 16/10/2019
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Lionel Messi's debut against Espanyol

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 one, 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-)

Thursday 16 October 2004: Barcelona were locked in a closely-fought local derby at fierce rivals Espanyol, holding a 1-0 lead thanks to an early goal from Portuguese ace Deco.

With time running out, manager Frank Rijkaard opted to protect his lead by adding fresh legs into his forward line. The tiring Deco was taken off, and replaced by a promising teenager from the club’s youth ranks: Lionel Messi.

And so it began.

Except it had all really begun much earlier, with a truly remarkable story which unfolded in Messi’s hometown of Rosario, Argentina.

Young Lionel was always a fanatical footballer, spending every spare minute playing in the streets or at the park with his two older brothers and, later on, as part of the youth ranks of local professional side Newell’s Old Boys.

He was very good…but very small. And at the age of 10, he was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency which prevented normal growth. Expensive medical treatment was available, and initially the cost was covered by his father’s social security payments.

But then the government funding ran out, and his family could not afford to pay for the treatment. Neither could (or, perhaps, would) Newell’s. So Lionel travelled to Buenos Aires and trialled with the country’s biggest club, River Plate, who liked what they saw…but they wouldn’t take the risk of paying for the drugs.

Before it had even begun, Messi’s career was on the line: without finding the funds from somewhere, he would not finish the course of hormone treatment; without the treatment, he would not grow; without physical growth, he would not be able to physically compete with his peers. His progress as a highly promising young footballer would be curtailed, probably irreparably, and he would have to settle for whatever life in Rosario might provide.

Messi, though, was not one to settle for second-best. Even as a little boy, he was fiercely competitive to the point of psychosis, and he would not lightly surrender his dreams of becoming an elite footballer.

His family backed him, enlisted the support of an agent (Josep Maria Minguella, who had previously played a role in Diego Maradona’s move across the Atlantic to Barcelona), and secured a two-week trial with the Catalan club. If Lionel impressed sufficiently, Minguella assured the family, a contract would be forthcoming.

Messi, then 13 years old, certainly did impress during that trial, even if one of his new teammates – an attacking midfielder named Francesc Fabregas – joked that the timid Argentine was so quiet he must have been mute.

Signing Messi, however good he looked, was not an easy decision for Barca, greatly complicated by the fact that it entailed not just bringing a talented player onto the books but also moving over his entire family from Argentina, giving them an apartment and finding a job for the father.

After much deliberation, sporting director Charly Rexach took the gamble – ignoring the noisy protestations of several club directors, who were reluctant to make such a commitment to a 13 year-old – and, in February 2001, the family moved to Barcelona.

Messi quickly proved the faith placed in his talents by the club and his family was well-founded as he accelerated through the youth ranks – at one point advancing through five different levels in one season.

No other player had ever achieved such a rapid progression, and first team manager Rijkaard could not help but notice. He gave Messi a debut, aged 16, in a friendly fixture against Porto (managed by Jose Mourinho) in November 2003. Messi’s slender frame briefly prevented him from making further inroads into senior football, but after a few training sessions several experienced players – including the king of Camp Nou, Ronaldinho – pleaded with their manager to give the tiny Argentine a chance.

That league debut at Espanyol was followed by a handful more outings as Barca moved towards the league title, and Messi bagged his first goal towards the end of the campaign, against Albacete in May 2005, when Ronaldinho teed him up by providing a perfect pass and Messi did the rest by lobbing the advancing goalkeeper. In a moment that has become iconic, Ronaldinho then celebrated by lifting the young scorer high onto his shoulders, and the Camp Nou crowd roared in appreciation of a special goal.

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Those lucky fans present that night could never have known just how special Messi would become, but further clues soon emerged.

A few weeks later, in the summer of 2005, Messi inspired Argentina to the World Youth Championship title, finishing the event in the Netherlands as player of the tournament and leading scorer after netting brilliant goals in the quarter and semi-finals against Spain and Brazil, along with a title-clinching pair of penalties in the final victory over Nigeria.

Back with his club after a short break, Messi expunged any ideas of sending him out on loan to gain experience by producing a show-stopping performance against Juventus in a pre-season friendly. The Italian team, prompted by their wily coach Fabio Capello, immediately offered to buy him, but Barca reacted with a firm ’no’: Messi was going nowhere, except into Rijkaard’s first team and into the boardroom to sign a new contract.

Messi duly became a regular starter, and before the end of the 2005/6 season he burst into the consciousness of the wider footballing public with an astonishing display against Chelsea in the Champions League, running rings around opposing full-back Asier Del Horno until the defender’s only option was hacking his tormentor to the ground, earning himself an early dismissal.

Despite this apparently unstoppable progress, Messi also had to overcome some significant disappointments. Firstly, in August 2005, he was sent off less than a minute into his international debut, harshly dismissed for using his arm to repel the attentions of Hungary defender Vilmos Vanczak.

A few months later, the domestic season ended in glory for Barcelona as Rijkaard led his team to a Champions League final victory over Arsenal, but it was a bittersweet occasion for Messi as he watched from the sidelines, ruled out through injury.

Then, in the summer of 2006, the first of many World Cup heartaches ensued, with Messi controversially left on the bench as Argentina suffered a penalty shoot-out elimination in the quarter-final against hosts Germany.

Those early setbacks served to toughen Messi up, forcefully reminding him that professional football was anything but easy. Niggling injuries also regularly struck him down, with his still-developing body struggling to adapt to the gruelling demands of weekly competition.

Nevertheless, his star continued to rise, with the precocious teen lining up on the right of Barca’s attack to form a deadly attacking trio with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o.

As if they were needed, two moments towards the end of the 2006/7 campaign further confirmed Messi’s peerless potential. Against Getafe in a cup tie at the Camp Nou, he produced a ’Maradona moment’ by reenacting his compatriot’s World Cup goal against England with eerie exactness, receiving the ball on the halfway line and dancing past two defenders, racing goalwards to leave two more opponents flailing in his wake, and then rounding the goalkeeper to tap home.

Even more significantly, 19 year-old Messi also made his first major impact upon the most famous footballing fixture of them all: El Clasico. His hat-trick against Real Madrid on 10 March 2007, including a ferociously struck last-gasp equaliser, showed that Messi was ready to excel in any occasion, on any stage.

He had well and truly arrived, and his time was now.

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