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:
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.
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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