We’re often told that history repeats itself, but no one expects it to happen with such uncanny precision.
Those who have seen Lionel Messi’s breathtaking opener in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final will have noted its alarming similarity to his now-iconic goal against Getafe back in 2007.
That, of course, was itself an eerily accurate replica of Maradona’s against England three decades previously. Two legends, one goal, three versions – and each goal imbued with its own significance.
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Maradona’s effort at the 1986 World Cup has long been accepted as an all-time great’s definitive demonstration of his genius, while Messi’s 12-second dismantling of Getafe has become shorthand for his emergence onto the same pantheon. And Saturday’s goal, in time, may come to represent Messi at the peak of his powers. It’s a bold claim, but Lionel Messi might well be in the form of his life.
It's been quite the turnaround since last summer’s World Cup, when Messi seemed another player and almost another personality. Throughout that tournament, instead of engaging himself in his side’s build-up play as normal, Messi simply meandered around up front, showing little interest in the match – or indeed life in general – until the ball arrived at his feet.
It was an odd change of tack for a player so famed for his puppyish enthusiasm, and it seemed too deliberate to be simple laziness or lethargy. The reason was economy. On this most important of stages – be it by instruction or initiative – Messi seemed to be ensuring not to waste valuable breath chasing defenders around or dropping deep to create. Not when what was most required of him was goals.
Messi may not have appreciated it but as he loitered in the final third, watching with a raised eyebrow as his teammates toiled under the baking sun on his behalf, the obvious comparison was with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s career has essentially been one gradual transformation from dazzling winger to penalty box goal machine – and in the perennial power-battle between the two, Messi’s claim to supremacy has always been his greater variety.
Although Messi scored four splendid goals at the World Cup there was something oddly incongruous about his barefaced abandonment of all secondary duties. It was as though the wide-eyed kid we knew and loved had suddenly entered a surly, self-centred adolescence, blasting grunge music into his headphones and eating bowls of cereal in the middle of the night.
But fortunately for those who harboured worries about this melancholy becoming permanent, Messi has spent the past six months rediscovering the zest of old – and revamping his playing style in the process.
Not only has Messi demonstrated that playmaking duties remain very much within his job description, he has fully embraced them. For Argentina in the summer, he resembled a man who had dropped a contact lens in the penalty box; now, he is more of a creative influence upon the Barcelona side than ever before. Economising has gone out the window, and Messi and his team are all the richer for it.
The number of through-balls he sent the way of team-mates during the league season just finished was 33; over the previous two seasons combined, that number was 24. His passes made in general play has shot up from 1104 last season to 1742 this time. And while the assist can often be a simplistic statistic, Messi has set up more goals this year than in any other in his career.
There is an irony to this shift, too: as their star attacker has become more selfless, Barcelona have become more beholden to their star attackers. Under Luis Enrique, the side has departed somewhat from the ball-hogging fundamentalism of the Pep Guardiola regime and towards a more visceral approach which exploits the maverick individualism of Neymar and Luis Suarez.
If Messi’s new lease of life has been energising, it was far from immediate. After glowering his way through the World Cup, he spent the opening months of the club season in similarly patchy form. When Barcelona were defeated 3-1 at the Bernabeu in October, one broadsheet posed the question “Are Lionel Messi’s best days behind him?” and lamented “not so much the dying of tiki-taka, but the decline of its defining exponent”.
In fact, the opposite has since proved true – Messi has blossomed while the system has been compromised – but at the time the viewpoint was valid. It wasn’t until early January – specifically, a win over Atletico Madrid in which the front three all scored for the first time, and cogs began to audibly whir –that Messi really began to quash the doubting voices.
Since then it’s been all sunshine and rainbows. Twenty-seven wins from 31 games for Barcelona, 35 goals for Messi, and a possible treble to come.
Quite what prompted the U-turn no one knows. There have been reports of a stern word in Messi’s ear from outbound captain Xavi, and there have been a tactical tweaks. It is hard not to spot a correlation, too, between Messi’s Ballon d’Or defeat to Ronaldo on January 12 and the superhuman upsurge in form that followed.
In March, Messi himself said “I have gone from being a disaster to being in the best form of my career in a very short time”. More than anything else, that was a playful swipe at the media, but it nonetheless hit upon the seesawing nature of his past few months. And regarding his recent form, he might be right.
What could well give this season’s Messi the edge over previous incarnations is his companions up front. During Messi’s most majestic spells of the past, his fellow strikers were largely defined by their selflessness. Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa were all high-pedigree centre-forwards shunted to the flanks to accommodate Messi centrally, while the likes of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez put in many miles of hard and thankless running to open up space for him. It often made them look bad, too – Pedro and Villa mustered just 10 league goals between them in a season when Messi helped himself to 50 – but they were largely compliant. As made clear by the fate of Zlatan Ibrahimović, they had little choice.
This season is different: the culture of deference has subsided. Suarez and Neymar are not quite hostile egotists in the Zlatan mould, but their profile and playing style demand a certain level of, if not parity, then centrality. In Suarez’s case this has become literal: after his return from suspension, Messi was quickly shifted to his old haunt on the right wing.
It’s only a nominal position, of course, but logic would suggest that Messi’s influence would dwindle on the pitch’s periphery; instead it has exploded. The current Messi has managed to weave together the best of both worlds: the creative brilliance acquired during his time as a false nine under Guardiola allied with the joyous freestyling from the right which defined his early years. Let's call it Messi 3.0. And all this while maintaining his all-important scoring rate of a goal a game (or, to be precise, 58 in 56).
Can we say conclusively that the current version of Lionel Messi is the best yet? Saturday’s goal against Bilbao offered a timely validation for those in favour – but he has done that kind of thing plenty of times before. More likely, it was his display against Manchester City in March which best showcased the real reasons behind this pinnacle. Messi was both attacking force and creative hub that night, his display marked equally with driving runs and probing passes, and, just for aesthetics' sake, topped with a liberal sprinkling of nutmegs. A transfixed Gary Neville spoke for most onlookers when he described what he saw as “scandalously good”.
Ultimately there is no measure, index or arbiter to produce a definitive ruling on how the Messi of today compares to previous versions. In terms of sheer productivity, he will surely never surpass his 73-goal 2011/12 season – a ludicrous feat by any standard. And yet the Messi of recent months almost certainly boasts a wider repertoire and a greater overall influence, and with this comes a more – even more – mesmeric quality to his play. Again: there’s no quantifying that, but it’s there.
Of course, the ultimate affirmation would be a statement on the grandest stage: a goal under the floodlights in Saturday’s season finale. He’s done it twice before – don’t bet against history repeating itself again.
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