“Don’t write about him – watch him.” said Pep Guardiola.
Just as Pep commanded, I have tried my hardest. I have sat back in awe at every dribble, every pass and every goal. Messi’s individual brilliance is not so much that he is doing things we have never seen before, but it is that he does them with such consistency that it has almost become expected, if not demanded. Common words to describe the Argentine ran out a long time ago, with journalists and fans running to their nearest thesaurus to think of something fresh. Last Sunday again was no different, with Sevilla dominating the match for the first 42 minutes at a pace and precision that would cut any other normal side into pieces. But then again there he was, like some sort of bat signal was shot into the sky from Catalunya over the Sánchez Pizjuán.
He appeared, like the hero we needed, gently side footing a shot past Sergio Rico that drastically changed the tenner of the match. In the second half he was all over the field, up front, in the middle and at the back — doing jobs better than the people that are paid handsomely to do them. He’d finish the match scoring one and assisting one; but he could have scored three and assisted three more if it weren't for his teammates uncharacteristically misfiring.
The win keeps Barca in striking distance of 1st place Real Madrid at just 2 points behind, but something continues to feel off. The way in which the Catalans used to control the game is slowly diminishing, with individual mistakes and difficulty building from the back among the chief issues. Perhaps the return of Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique is all that is missing from rectifying what ails them, or has Lionel Messi just become the worlds greatest band-aid?
Whatever the case may be, Argentina has provided the perfect example of how bad things can get. After their latest humiliating defeat, a 3-0 trouncing to arch-nemesis Brazil, La Albiceleste sit eight points adrift of first place. Second-placed Uruguay are also all but uncatchable, as they also sit behind Colombia, Ecuador and Chile in sixth — and must finish fourth to secure an automatic spot at Russia 2018.
It is now four games without a win and the hot breath of Paraguay billows down their necks just a point behind them. Supporters whistle the team every chance they get and tempers that were once simmering have reached a full-fledged boil.
“We must change this s*** “, Messi said. We must change things in our heads, because when you’re not well in your head, your legs do not respond.”
The mounting criticism forced Messi to retire once before and it soon could become a second, although this time there may not be any big tournament to retire from. The expectation of Leo to be great in each-and-every match has not only been unfair but essential. Without his individual dominance, Argentina have historically suffered, failing to capture the trophies that Leo has made commonplace at the club level.
What should be worrisome, is that so far this season, the Messi performance trends at the club level have begun to mirror the national. Consider, that in the 11 games Barca have won this season, Messi has scored 15 goals and dished out 7 assists. In the 3 draws and 1 loss in which he has played, he has managed to only score a single goal. While stats can tell us one side of the story, there is another more telling and less quantifiable dilemma facing the club — mentality. As the tiki taka — hold on to the ball as if it was your endangered baby — philosophy has slowly faded away, the onus has shifted more and more onto Messi to make something happen. This has required the Argentine to drift around the field while assuming multiple rolls in the span of a few minutes, let alone a game. This reliance does not only put pressure on Leo to perform but to lead the charge in doing so. But what happens if he doesn’t? What if his form dips for an extended period and the teams results go with it?
Hell, maybe I’m just overacting to a small sample size that was directly affected by injuries. But what if I’m not? Let’s just hope the band-aid can cover the wound for a little while longer.