Lionel Messi's Ballon d'Or-winning form might not be enough for Barcelona this season
On the subject of Lionel Messi, let me take you back to Sunday, Oct. 6, at Camp Nou.
Six-time Ballon d'Or winner he might now be, but at that stage, his season had already been scarred by injury, disappointment and defeat. Plus, it had been revealed that, shockingly, he could walk away from Barcelona -- for free -- in June. It was already the eighth week of term, and Messi had started only one La Liga match, played a total of 90 minutes domestically and been defeated at Granada.
That October night, Barcelona were 3-0 up by the 78th minute, but their No. 10 hadn't scored or created any of the goals.
Messi jogged up and launched a curling free kick into the top left corner of Tomas Vaclik's goal, over the head of Daniel Carrico, who'd retreated to the goal line. It was a single, gleaming moment of Messi magic peaking through the unrelenting gloom that had dogged him since July, when Argentina lost the semifinal of the Copa America to Brazil, and the little genius was, quite ludicrously, sent off during the third-place game against Chile.
However, take note.
From Oct. 6 until now, we've witnessed the kind of behaviour that not only guaranteed Messi the Ballon d'Or again (voting closed in early November) but also underlined his status as one of the most special men ever to pull on football boots. From that day until this, Barcelona have scored 21 times and surged to the top of both La Liga and their Champions League group, and Messi has either created or converted 17 of those goals.
Now let me take you back a couple of weeks before that sublime free kick: Messi breaks down just before half-time against Villarreal. TV camera microphones catch him saying to the club's physio: "I can't break down again. I can't break down."
He's on the side of the pitch, desperately hoping that the inner-thigh massage he has been given can clear the muscle pain and he can resume. To his left (injured and dropped, respectively) Ivan Rakitic and Samuel Umtiti loom over him in the front row of the Camp Nou stand, but they're watching the match. Right behind him is his personal aide-de-camp, Pepe Costa, who has been inseparable from Messi for many years. His face is like thunder; he knows the agony his friend and client is suffering.
But I think people misinterpreted Messi's sentiments that night. To many it sounded like, and was interpreted as, a personal lament.
Given how he has hoisted a confused, confusing and inconsistent Barcelona onto his shoulders since his return against Sevilla, it can retrospectively be understood as him stating, out loud in anguish to the night sky, that he feared that if he were seriously injured, having been out for weeks with a calf problem, by the time he returned, his team's season would be in tatters.
Jump to the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday and the magnificent way Messi, who knew by then that he was the Ballon d'Or winner, chose to celebrate his coronation by spearing Atletico Madrid through their soul.
Don't for a second think that his mind had drifted 24 hours forward to the ceremony in Paris, but nevertheless, Messi played extremely strangely. When he trudged around the Metropolitano pitch, he looked more disaffected than mentally dissecting Atletico.
Remember that phrase Pep Guardiola used about Messi conducting mental X-rays of surrounding gaps and opportunities while he strolled around the playing surface? This wasn't that. He miscontrolled, he chose his route with the ball mistakenly more often than not, and he gave possession away such that he was forced to race back three quarters of the pitch to try to correct his error. Like it or not, this was an off night for Mr. Ballon d'Or.
By now you know that he eventually remedied that -- and spectacularly so. But what the world's first six-time Ballon d'Or winner did, and how he produced the executioner's touch in Madrid late on Sunday, was extremely illuminating.
Recently, I interviewed Antoine Griezmann. Not only is he not buckling under the responsibility of unlearning one skill set and relearning another, but he is also completely sure that he's on target, given how tough he anticipated the process would be. Although by his own admission he is shy, not likely to try to inveigle his way into the Messi-Luis Suarez circle of trust, Griezmann is also quite clear that he has the mean determination and work rate to earn the respect and acceptance of the two senior men of war up front for Barcelona.
To help complete this puzzle and to further our understanding of Messi and his fiefdom, just take those themes from Griezmann and build them into your appreciation of Barcelona's past two games.
On Wednesday, Barcelona thumped Borussia Dortmund with their three principal strikers, Argentinian-Uruguayan-Frenchman, all scoring in the same match for just the second time. Afterward, Suarez called Griezmann's performance "sensational." He then added that once Barcelona went 2-0 up and thought they had the match under control, "Messi and I sought out Antoine with the ball, as we've done with others before him, in the knowledge that it was 'costing' him to convert chances into goals. Helping him and him getting that first Champions League goal for Barca was important for his confidence."
There's nothing outright negative about the statement, but it's a clear signal that helping Griezmann integrate, feel confident, score goals and turn a duopoly into a trident as they did with Neymar is far down the list of priorities. It was a touch patronising, but there you have it.
So back to Sunday.
By the time Thomas Lemar has made his lame attempt at a cross-field diagonal ball to release Vitolo and Sergi Roberto has cut it out by heading it down to Frenkie de Jong, Messi is about to receive the ball with five minutes left. Oddly, the Dutchman either notices his team leader and in-house genius and deliberately ignores him at first or De Jong is fixated on the idea of a long diagonal ball to his left in order to release the French World Cup winner and thus doesn't see the infinitely easier pass to Messi, who's about 25 metres away, as opposed to 50.
Messi waves his arms in the air, signifying both a desire to get the ball now and a disbelieving frustration (make that astonishment) that he hasn't been given it instantly. You've likely seen what happens next.
While Sergi Roberto's dummy run into the box takes one defender away and tricks Thomas Partey into a 180 he didn't need to make, Messi cuts left, across the front of the penalty area, and has the ball at his laser-controlled left boot. Atleti are in deep, deep trouble.
What looms in front of him -- and I honestly mean it couldn't have been more obvious if there were a yellow brick road to follow or a celestial, fluorescent sign with the words "Give. The. Ball. To. Griezmann." -- is a super simple chance to slide a pass into the Frenchman's path. He is open beyond belief. After he was harangued, whistled and abused all night, it would have been storybook of storybooks had the loathed Griezmann scored Barcelona's winning goal past Jan Oblak.
But Messi isn't even interested.
The one-two pass he plays with Suarez is executed superbly, but it's the more difficult option, and instead of a little shunt of the ball into Griezmann's scoring zone, the Argentinian and Uruguayan have taken the opportunity into a more crowded, potentially more threatening area. Of course Messi scores -- with barely a backlift of his left boot, with such a powerful parabola that Oblak is still leaping at full stretch when the Puma-branded sphere stretches the netting behind him.
It was a moment to justify all those who'd already voted for Messi for the Ballon d'Or ahead of Virgil van Dijk, who said he thought the award belonged to Barcelona's Argentinian (despite his team's defeating Messi's team 4-0 at Anfield last spring -- how amazing a point of view is that?) It was a moment to make the ultra-competitive Diego Simeone stop, shrug, applaud in honest admiration and shrug again, as if to say: "Can't argue with genius." It was a moment to understand Griezmann's predicament.
Messi and Suarez, so long as they are athletically able to, take care of business. They view it as their responsibility; they are willing to donate a goal to Griezmann when the serious heavy lifting is already done. It's like parents who do the driving but are willing to ride along with their learner's-permit-toting kid on Sundays. Griezmann's task is to mix patience with aggression and do special enough things that Messi & Suarez Inc. are shocked into offering a junior partnership rather than a salaried post.
We are in December. In terms of points, determination, physical well-being and lifting the only trophies so far available to him, Messi, and by definition Barcelona, couldn't have achieved a great deal more. Whether this momentum is sufficient to beat Real Madrid at Camp Nou in a fortnight, whether it's sufficient to power Barcelona past the European pretenders who play heavy-metal football in March and April, whether this precarious role for Messi running, dribbling and scoring with a good number of teammates on his back is sufficient to win trophies, we will have to wait and see.
You'd suspect not.
Just to return to the point, Messi knew it that day in September when he lay injured, distraught and fearful on the turf at Camp Nou against Villarreal. Without him for a long spell, Barcelona would not collapse but would, slowly, be exposed as mere mortals. As it is, he's having to do so much heavy lifting, to creak under such responsibility, that the individual trophies inevitably come his way.
But La Liga and the Champions League? They look far more out of reach than Barcelona's various points totals suggest.