Messi has been superb in Champions League play, but it's his consistent performance in Spain that can bring Barcelona the most important of titles in 2013.
Four years ago, asked which title I wanted most for FC Barcelona, I would have answered without hesitation: the Champions League. My first experience as a culé saw Barcelona fall out of the Liga title race early, but reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League, where they were eliminated by Manchester United and Paul Scholes' long-range strike. The best teams in Europe then were undoubtedly English, and I wanted more than anything to see FC Barcelona get revenge on Manchester United and take home the Champions League crown.
Things have changed. Barcelona has won two European championships at the expense of Manchester United, and won every other title imaginable. Meanwhile, Real Madrid has risen, and the two best teams in Europe now hail from Spain. The rivalry between the two clubs-which to me seemed merely historic in 2008-has become perhaps the most intense in all of sport. After watching Barcelona edged from European competition by Chelsea, then defeated at home by Real Madrid just days later, my hope for this season is clear: La Liga or bust.
To me, nothing is more important for FC Barcelona 2012/2013 than regaining La Liga's crown, for it represents a far greater achievement than the Champions League, and restores the following hierarchy:
1. FC Barcelona
2. Real Madrid CF
One could argue that the Champions League is the more prestigious competition in football. Certainly the field of teams is far stronger than the 20 clubs that make up La Liga, and the hype and excitement surrounding knockout matches is hard to beat. But recent results have, for me, clearly distinguished cup competition from League play, and added weight to the La Liga title. Let's take Spain's domestic cup as an example: there's a reason that seven out of the last ten Copa del Rey champions are teams not named Real Madrid or Barcelona. The reason being that the best team doesn't always win.
Not to diminish the accomplishments of Copa del Rey champions or Champions League winners-what Chelsea did last season was nothing short of remarkable, (and I'm happy for Lampard, Terry, and Co. who endured heartbreaking losses in the 2008 and 2009 competitions). But winning a cup often comes down to luck, and always comes down to a single match. Barcelona probably should have beaten Chelsea, and very likely would have handled Bayern Munich in the final (the same can be said of the 2009 Champions League, with Inter Milan in the semis and Bayern awaiting in the final).
Losing the Champions League last year was tough to swallow, but losing La Liga to Real Madrid was far worse. The Chelsea loss could be explained away as bad luck, but there was no mistaking which Spanish side was strongest last season. Real Madrid steamrolled La Liga, and Barcelona was thoroughly overpowered in the second Clásico. The Copa del Rey was little consolation, and finding solace in European success-in the face of domestic defeat-is something for clubs who cannot contend for their own league crown (see: Barcelona 2007/2008, Chelsea 2011/2012).
Real Madrid's 9 European titles to Barcelona's 4 is a margin every culé would like to see erased one day, but 32 La Liga titles for Real Madrid compared to 21 for Barcelona is the more important statistic. Pep Guardiola always said La Liga was his number one priority, and he meant it. Winning the Spanish league is a monumental accomplishment, and one that cannot be minimized by opposing fans, chalked up as a stroke of luck, or sullied by conspiracy theories. Winning La Liga means that after 38 games, scores of goals, and thousands of minutes, one team is undoubtedly the strongest. FC Barcelona plays in the best league in the world, and this year they can once again prove they're the best team. With a surprising eight-point lead at the top of the table already, they're off to a good start.